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Blasts hit near army HQ in Damascus

Two massive explosions have rocked the heart of Damascus, striking near the army and air force command headquarters and sending huge columns of thick black smoke over the Syrian capital.

The bombings were the latest to hit the city as the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime intensifies, highlighting the increasingly deep reach of the rebels determined to topple him.

Syria's state-run news agency Sana said a fire broke out in the area after the twin blasts, which struck just before 7am local time (4am GMT) near the landmark Omayyad square.

The explosions shattered the windows of nearby buildings, including the entire facade of the Dama Rose hotel which overlooks the area, and were heard several miles away.

Information Minister Omran Zoubi said the blasts were caused by two "large, highly explosive" improvised devices, one of which may have been placed "on the inner side of the fence" around the grounds of the army command building. He said the damage inflicted was material and there were no casualties.

"I can confirm that all our comrades in the military command and defence ministry are fine," he told Syrian TV, which is located near the site of the explosion, in a telephone call. "Everything is normal. There was a terrorist act, perhaps near a significant location, yes, this is true, but they failed as usual to achieve their goals."

Black smoke rose high into the air and ambulances were rushed to the site as police sealed off the area to traffic and journalists. Witnesses said the explosions were followed by heavy gunfire, suggesting security forces clashed with gunmen in the high security area.

Syria's unrest began in March 2011 when protests calling for political change met a violent government crackdown. Many in the opposition have since taken up arms as the conflict morphed into a civil war that activists say has killed nearly 30,000 people.

Syria's conflict was the focus of attention as world leaders gathered at the UN General Assembly's annual meeting in New York this week.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded international action to stop the war in Syria, telling a sombre gathering of world leaders yesterday that the 18-month conflict had become "a regional calamity with global ramifications".

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