Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Syria's prime minister escapes assassination attempt on convoy

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrians inspecting a damaged car at the scene of a car bomb exploded in the capital's western neighborhood of Mazzeh, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, April. 29, 2013
This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrians inspecting a damaged car at the scene of a car bomb exploded in the capital's western neighborhood of Mazzeh, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, April. 29, 2013
This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrians inspecting a damaged car at the scene of a car bomb exploded in the capital's western neighborhood of Mazzeh, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, April. 29, 2013

Syria's prime minister has escaped an assassination attempt after a bomb exploded near his convoy in Damascus in the latest attack to target a top official in president Bashar Assad's regime.

Wael al-Halqi was not hurt in the explosion in the capital's western district of Mazzeh, state TV said, showing footage of heavily damaged cars and debris in the area as firefighters fought to extinguish a large blaze set off by the blast.

The state news agency said several people were killed in the blast, while the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said the explosion killed at least five, including two of Mr al-Halqi's bodyguards and one of the drivers in his convoy.

As evidence that the prime minister was unhurt, the state-run Al-Ikhbariya station said he went into a regular weekly meeting with an economic committee straight after the bombing. The station broadcast video of the prime minister sitting around a table in a room with several other officials.

But in comments after the meeting, Mr al-Halqi made no reference to the blast, nor was he asked about it by reporters, leaving doubt as to whether the footage was filmed before or after the bombing.

The state news agency, meanwhile, quoted him as saying that the assassination attempt exposes how armed groups "are bankrupt" after the latest advances made by Syrian troops around the country.

In January Mr al-Halqi formed a ministerial committee to conduct dialogue with opposition groups. The dialogue is part of efforts to implement a peace plan, including a national reconciliation conference, Assad outlined in a speech earlier that month.

The opposition says it will not accept anything less than Assad's departure, and progress has been made on the dialogue since it was announced.

A Syrian government official said a home-made bomb was placed under a car that was parked in the area and was detonated as Mr al-Halqi's convoy passed.

The attack in the highly secure Mazzeh neighborhood took place only about 100 yards from the Swiss ambassador's residence. The area also is home to a major military air base.

The attack was not the first targeting a high official in the Syrian capital during the past year.

On July 18, a blast at Syria's national security building in Damascus during a meeting of Cabinet ministers killed top four officials, including the defense minister and his deputy, who was Assad's brother-in-law. That attack also wounded the interior minister.

In December, a car bomb targeted the Interior Ministry in Damascus, killing several people and wounding more than 20, including Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar. Initially, Syrian state media said her was not hurt in the blast. News of his wounds emerged a week later, after he was taken to neighbouring Lebanon to be treated for a serious back injury.

Earlier in April, Ali Ballan, head of public relations at the Ministry of Social Affairs and a member of Syria's relief agency, was shot dead while dining in a restaurant in Mazzeh.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest attack. Similar bombings have been a trademark of Islamic radicals fighting in the rebel ranks, raising concerns about the extremists' role in Syria's civil war.

Mr Al-Halqi, a senior member of Assad's ruling Baath party, took office last year after his predecessor, Riad Hijab, defected to Jordan. Mr Al-Halqi was Syria's health minister before taking the post. He is from the southern city of Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising.

Elsewhere in Syria, the Observatory reported fighting near the Damascus International Airport south of the capital. The group said there were also clashes in the northern neighbourhood of Barzeh and shelling of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damacus.

The Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, reported clashes and air raids around the military helicopter base of Mannagh near the border with Turkey in the northern province of Aleppo.

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