Albert Aji and Ryan Lucas
DAMASCUS, SYRIA: Syria’s prime minister narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in the heart of the heavily defended capital Monday, state media said, laying bare the vulnerability of President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The bombing, which killed several other people, highlights an accelerating campaign targeting government officials, from midlevel civil servants to the highest echelons of the Syrian regime.
State television said Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi was not hurt in the bombing, which struck his convoy as it drove through the posh Mazzeh neighborhood — home to embassies, government officials and business elites with close ties to the regime. Footage of the scene broadcast on state TV showed the charred hulks of cars and the burnt-out shell of a bus in a street littered with rubble.
The attack on al-Halqi punctuated a series of attacks on government officials in recent weeks. On April 18, gunmen shot dead the head of public relations at the Ministry of Social Affairs while he dined at a Mazzeh restaurant. A day later, a Syrian army colonel was killed in Damascus, and five days after that a bomb killed an official from the Electricity Ministry.
Then there are the larger attacks that have shaken the regime to its core.
Last month, a suicide bombing at a Damascus mosque killed Sheik Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti, a leading Sunni Muslim preacher and outspoken supporter of Assad. That followed a blast last July that killed four top regime officials, including Assad’s brother-in-law and the defense minister, at the Syrian national security building in the capital.
Eager to assure the public that al-Halqi survived Monday’s attack, the state-run Al-Ikhbariya station said the prime minister attended a regular weekly meeting with an economic committee immediately after the bombing. The station broadcast video of al-Halqi sitting at a table with several other officials.
Later, in its evening news program, state TV showed video of al-Halqi denouncing the attack, calling it a “terrorist and criminal act” and wishing the wounded a speedy recovery.
A government official said two people were killed and 11 wounded in the blast, while the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group put the death toll at five, including two of al-Halqi’s bodyguards and one of the drivers in his convoy.
The government official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements to reporters.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday’s attack, but bombings like the one that struck the prime minister’s convoy have been a trademark of Islamic radicals fighting in the rebel ranks.