World Bulletin / News Desk
Syrian rebels bombed a military complex in Damascus on Wednesday, striking at the heart of President Bashar al-Assad's power and igniting a fire which gutted the army command headquarters.
The Free Syrian Army, the main rebel force fighting to overthow Assad, claimed responsibility for the attack which it said killed dozens of people.
But an armed forces statement said military leaders were unhurt and only a number of guards were wounded in the blasts, which shook the whole city at around 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) before regular working hours.
It was the biggest attack in Damascus since July 18 when a blast killed several senior security officials, including Assad's brother-in-law, the defence minister.
That attack paved the way for a rebel advance into the centre of the capital, although they have since been pushed back to the outskirts.
Internet footage of Wednesday's fire at the General Staff Command Building in central Umayad Square showed flames engulfing its upper floors, indicating explosives were planted inside the building itself.
The main gate was completely blackened from the fire while all the windows of the building were blown out. Shards of glass littered the nearby streets, Reuters television foootage showed.
The blast gouged a deep crater, apparently where the explosive-laden car blew up.
Residents reported that gunfire rattled out around the district for at least two hours after the explosions. Roads in the area were blocked off as ambulances rushed to the scene.
"All our colleagues in the military leadership, the army staff command and the Defence Ministry are unhurt," Information Minister Omran Zoabi told Syrian Television.
Security forces were chasing "armed terrorists" - a term the authorities use to refer to insurgents waging war to oust Assad.
"It's a terrorist act, close to an important site, that's true. But as usual they failed to achieve their goal," he said.
Activist Sami al-Shami said the main explosions were caused by a suicide car bombing and second car loaded with explosives on the perimeter of the complex.
"Then the fighters went inside and clashed with security inside, while some of the men started to torch the building".
"There must be several security forces dead, there's no way the rebels could have made it in that far, fighting their way in, without killing any security forces," he told Reuters.
That appeared to tally with accounts from residents who heard gunfire and smaller blasts after the first explosions.
"The explosions were very loud. They shook the whole city and the windows of our house were shuddering," one resident reached by telephone said. "Black smoke was rising from the area near the army staff building."
A reporter for al-Manar television said he was in the building after the explosion and saw the bodies of three "armed men", suggesting clashes between security forces and rebels at the site.
Another resident said: "I was woken up at four minutes to seven by the first loud explosion. Five or six minutes later there was a second."
"We're used to the sound of artillery but these were very big - bigger than usual. I can hear gunfire still," he said.
He said he saw soldiers on the roof of the nearby Air Force Intelligence building, part of the same military complex which was hit.
Activists say more than 27,000 people have been killed in the 18-month-old uprising against Assad, and even Damascus has become a battleground.
Pro-Assad gunmen killed at least 16 people in the city on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The British-based Observatory said three of those killed in the poor district of Barzeh, which is sympathetic to opposition fighters, were children and six were women.
A correspondent for Iran's English-language Press TV was shot dead by a rebel sniper and its Damascus bureau chief was wounded while they covered Wednesday's explosions, Press TV said.
With no foreseeable prospect of foreign intervention and diplomacy stuck, outgunned rebels have relied increasingly on attacks with homemade bombs, striving to level the playing field against an army using fighter jets, artillery and tanks.
Humanitarian conditions are worsening as the violence drags on. The president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which has been the only relief group on the ground the entire 18 months of conflict, said it was in dire need of supplies.
"We need to concentrate mostly on health and shelter because there are 1.5 million displaced people," Abdul Rahman Attar told Reuters during a visit to Oslo. "We need more of everything."