- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 30, 2013

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A powerful bomb ripped through a bustling commercial district of Damascus on Tuesday, killing at least 14 people, shattering store fronts and bringing Syria’s civil war to the heart of the capital for the second consecutive day.

A day earlier, the Syrian prime minister narrowly escaped an assassination attempt after a car bomb struck near his convoy, a few miles from Tuesday’s blast. The bombings appear to be part of an accelerated campaign by opposition forces to hit President Bashar Assad’s regime in the heavily defended capital.

In Washington, President Obama, who has said the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would mark an unacceptable escalation of the country’s civil war, said the United States must be more certain of all the facts before he decides on how the country will intervene in the conflict.

SEE ALSO: Obama further amends ‘red line’ words on Syria chemical attacks

The White House said last week intelligence indicates the Syrian military likely has used a deadly nerve agent on at least two occasions in the civil war. Damascus denies the allegations and says Syrian rebels are trying to frame it.

Tuesday’s bombing struck the Marjeh neighborhood, a bustling commercial area near the Old City of Damascus, Syrian TV said. It described the explosion as a “terrorist bombing,” using the term Mr. Assad’s regime uses to refer to opposition fighters.

The state news agency said 14 people were killed and 103 wounded in the attack.

“I heard a very loud bang, and then the ceiling collapsed on top of me,” said Zaher Nafeq, who owns a mobile phone shop in the Damascus Towers, a 23-floor office building. He was wounded in his hand, and his shop was badly damaged in the blast.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, but car bombs and suicide attacks targeting Damascus and other cities that remain under government control in the third year of the conflict have been claimed in the past by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group — one of scores of rebel factions fighting to oust Mr. Assad.

The target of Tuesday’s attack was not immediately clear, although the explosion took place outside the former Interior Ministry building, which also was damaged in the blast.

Ambulances rushed to the scene, and Syrian state TV aired footage of firefighters trying to extinguish a blaze that engulfed several cars and buildings. A man was seen lying on the ground in a pool of blood while another, apparently wounded, was seen being carried by civilians into a bus.

Inspecting the site of the blast, Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar, who himself escaped a car bomb that targeted his convoy in December, told reporters the back-to-back attacks in the capital were in response to the “victories and achievements scored by the Syrian Arab Army on the ground against terrorism.”

In recent weeks, government troops have overrun two rebel-held Damascus suburbs and a town outside the capital. They also have captured several villages near the border with Lebanon as part of their efforts to secure the strategic corridor running from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast, which is the heartland of the president’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Tuesday’s explosion underlined the tenuous security in the Syrian capital, just a day after a remotely detonated roadside bomb struck Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi’s convoy. The premier escaped the assassination attempt unharmed, according to state TV.

Also Tuesday, Syrian troops battled opposition fighters near a military helicopter base in the northern province of Aleppo, killing 15 rebels in a single airstrike against their positions, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The rebels tried to storm the Mannagh base late Monday, but the regime deployed fighter jets to the area, pounding rebel positions around the base, which is near Syria’s border with Turkey, Mr. Abdul-Rahman said.

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