Many killed in central Damascus car bomb attack
DAMASCUS - A powerful car bomb exploded near the offices of Syria's ruling Baath party in central Damascus on Thursday, killing and wounding a "large number" of civilians and shattering buildings, media said.
The mid-morning blast, which rocked the city centre and sent thick smoke scudding across the skyline, came as Syria's opposition was meeting in Cairo to discuss proposals by its leader to hold conditional talks with Syria's regime.
"The terrorist explosion killed and wounded a large number of civilians," the official SANA news agency said.
Images of bloodied bodies lying on the ground and of blazing vehicles were broadcast by the official television channel Al-Ekhbariya, which said children were among the wounded, as the blast occurred near a school in the Mazraa district.
A police official said the car bomb exploded at the 16 November Square near the Al-Iman mosque, where the Baath party's head offices are located.
Ambulances sirens rang out, and machinegun fire was also heard in the area.
The explosion added urgency to the Cairo meeting of the main opposition National Coalition, where discussions according to a delegate were centered on an offer by the group's chief to hold direct talks with the Syrian regime.
"The agenda is long and among the issues to be discussed is the initiative of Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib," Khaled Nasser said.
Coalition chief Khatib has offered to negotiate with officials of President Bashar al-Assad's regime who have no "blood on their hands" -- naming Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa as a possible pointman for the talks.
Assad's regime has said it is ready to negotiate with the opposition but without pre-conditions.
Khatib's initiative has been welcomed by the Arab League and the United States as well as by two of Syria's chief allies, Iran and Russia.
But the Syrian National Council, a key component of the Coalition, has rejected any possibility of dialogue until Assad steps down.
UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who on Wednesday agreed to extend his mission by six months, at the weekend urged support for Khatib's plan.
Holding talks "in one of the United Nations' headquarters between the opposition and an acceptable Syrian government delegation would be a start to exiting the dark tunnel," he said in Cairo.
Russia, which has long urged a negotiated end to the conflict, on Wednesday again called on the warring sides to halt their fighting and start talks, warning that seeking a military settlement risked mutual destruction.
"It's time to end this two-year conflict," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after a meeting with Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi and other top Arab diplomats in Moscow.
"Neither side can allow itself to bet on a military settlement as this is a path to nowhere, a path to mutual destruction," he said.
"There are signs of positive tendencies, signs of tendencies for dialogue both from the side of the government and the opposition," he added.
But he said it was up to the two sides to decide what kind of dialogue might take place and at what level.
"It is important that they do not come out with any conditions for each other and say that I am going to talk to this person but not that one."
The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have been killed in the near two-year conflict, and puts the number of Syrians who have fled their homeland at more than 850,000.
The violence frequently spills across Syria's borders, spiking already-simmering regional tensions.
In the latest incident, the main rebel force, the Free Syrian Army, has accused Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group of shelling territory held by the insurgents, and issued a warning it would retaliate.
General Selim Idriss, the FSA chief of staff, said on Wednesday that Hezbollah had long been taking part in hostilities in Syria, but had gone too far by shelling villages near Qusayr in Homs province from the Bekaa valley in Lebanon.
The commander said the rebels were giving Hezbollah a 48-hour deadline to stop the attacks and "as soon as the ultimatum ends, we will start responding to the sources of fire".
Hezbollah has repeatedly denied sending fighters into Syria, though its leader Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged in October 2012 that party members had fought Syrian rebels but said they were acting as individuals and not under the group's direction.
Lebanon is sharply divided over the Syrian conflict, with the Sunni-led March 14 movement supporting the revolt and the Shiite Hezbollah and its allies backing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.