(MENAFN - Arab Times) A massive car bomb exploded near Syria's ruling party headquarters in Damascus on Thursday, killing at least 53 people and scattering mangled bodies amid the smoldering wreckage.
Syrian state media put the toll at 53 with more than 200 wounded. However, anti-regime activists said 59 died, which would make this the deadliest attack in the capital since the Syrian uprising began nearly two years ago. In May, a double suicide bombing killed 55 people in Damascus.
Three straight days of mortar attacks on the center of Damascus after recent rebel advances in the suburbs marked the most sustained rebel challenge in the heart of President Bashar Assad's seat of power.
Within hours of the car bombing, two other bombs went off elsewhere in the city and a mortar attack struck the army's central command. Thirteen people were killed by the other two bombs, activists said.
While no group has claimed responsibility, the attacks suggest that rebel fighters who have gotten bogged down in their attempts to storm the capital are resorting to guerrilla tactics to loosen Assad's grip on the capital.
The day's deadliest attack struck a main street on the edge of central Mazraa neighborhood, near the headquarters of Assad's ruling Baath party and the Russian Embassy, as well as a mosque, a hospital and a school.
TV footage of the blast site showed firemen dousing a flaming car with hoses and lifeless and dismembered bodies blown into the grass of a nearby park. The state news service, SANA, published photos showing a large crater in the middle of the rubble-strewn street and charred cars holding blackened bodies.
Witnesses at the scene said a car exploded at a security checkpoint between the Russian Embassy and the central headquarters of Assad's ruling party.
"It was huge. Everything in the shop turned upside down," one local resident said. He said three of his employees were injured by flying glass that killed a young girl who was walking by when the blast hit.
"I pulled her inside the shop but she was almost gone. We couldn't save her. She was hit in the stomach and head," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution for speaking with foreign media.
Ambulances rushed to the scene of the blast, which shattered windows and sent up a huge cloud of smoke visible throughout much of the city, witnesses said.
State TV called it a "terrorist" attack by a suicide bomber. The regime commonly refers to rebels fighting to overthrow Assad as terrorists.
The Britain-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 59 people were killed, including 16 members of the security forces. The rest were civilians, it said.
There was no way to immediately reconcile the differing death tolls.
The bombing was one of the two deadliest in the Syrian capital since the uprising against Assad began 23 months ago. Fifty-five people were killed in the first, a double suicide bombing outside of an intelligence building in May, 2012.
The most extreme of Syria's rebel groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, claimed responsibility for that and other bombings that have struck targets associated with the regime but also killed civilians.
Such tactics have galvanized Assad's supporters and made many other Syrians distrustful of the rebel movement as a whole, most of whose fighting groups do not use such tactics.
The main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, condemned the blast without accusing a specific group of carrying it out. It did, however, suggest that the regime allowed foreign terrorist groups to operate in Syria.
"The terrorist Assad regime bears the most responsibility for all the crimes that happen in the homeland because it has opened the doors to those with different agendas to enter Syria and harm its stability so it can hide behind this and use it as an excuse to justify its crimes," the group said in a statement on its Facebook page.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition is willing to negotiate a peace deal under US and Russian auspices to end the country's civil war but President Bashar al-Assad cannot be a party to any settlement, a document drafted for an opposition meeting said.
The meeting of the 70-member Western, Arab and Turkish-backed coalition began on Thursday before Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem is due for talks in Moscow, one of Assad's last foreign allies, and as UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi renews efforts for a deal.
The opposition front convened in Cairo on a day when a car bomb jolted central Damascus, killing 53 people, wounding 200 and incinerating cars on a busy highway close to the Russian Embassy and offices of the ruling Baath Party.
Syrian state television blamed the suicide blast on "terrorists". Central Damascus has been relatively insulated from the 23-month conflict that has killed around 70,000 people, but the bloodshed has shattered suburbs around the capital.
In the southern city of Deraa near the border with Jordan, activists said warplanes bombed the old quarter for the first time since March 2011, when the town set in a wheat-growing plain rose up against Assad, starting a national revolt.
A rebel officer in the Tawheed al-Janoub brigade which led an offensive this week in Deraa said there were at least five air strikes on Thursday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 18 people were killed, including eight rebel fighters.
Coalition member Munther Makhos, who was forced into exile in the 1970s for his opposition to Assad's father, the late Hafez al-Assad, said supplies from Iran and Russia were giving government forces an awesome firepower advantage.
"It would be surreal to imagine that a political solution is possible. Bashar al-Assad will not send his deputy to negotiate his removal. But we are keeping the door open," Makhos said.
The draft SNC political document, seen by Reuters, omitted a direct demand for Assad's removal, in a softening of tone from past positions that insisted the president must go before there could be any negotiations.
The document said Assad and his cohorts must be held accountable for bloodshed, and that any peace deal must be under the auspices of the United States and Russia.
"Bashar al-Assad and the military and security apparatus commands are responsible for the decisions that have led the country to what it is now, are outside the political process and are not part of any political solution in Syria," it said.
"They have to be held accountable for the crimes they have committed."
The initiative comes from coalition president Moaz Alkhatib, a cleric from Damascus who played a role in the peaceful protest movement against Assad at the beginning of the uprising in 2011.
Alkhatib's supporters say the initiative has popular support inside Syria from people who want to see a peaceful departure of Assad and a halt to the war that has increasingly pitted Assad's Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, against Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.
But rebel fighters on the ground, over whom Alkhatib has little control, are generally against the proposal.
The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, which represents armed brigades, said in a statement it was opposed to Alkhatib's initiative because it ignored the revolt's goal of "the downfall of the regime and all its symbols".
Meanwhile, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Thursday urged President Bashar al-Assad's regime to respond positively to an offer of dialogue by Syrian opposition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.
"There has been a very important offer of negotiation by Khatib of the National Coalition. It is important that that offer is responded to with serious negotiations by the Assad regime," Hague told reporters after talks in Beirut with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman.
"A political agreement on a transition is the only way forward to bring to an end this terrible and unacceptable loss of life," he said of the nearly two-year conflict which the UN says has claimed around 70,000 lives.
Hague also called on Assad to step down.
"It's time to go," he said, when asked what his message was for Assad.
"The people of Syria... have experienced enough suffering. Such destruction, such loss of life, such a threat to the stability of the whole region should not be endured because one person wishes to stay in power," he said.
National Coalition chief Khatib at the end of January offered to negotiate with regime officials who have no "blood on their hands."
Hague also announced a 17-million (12.9-million-euro) aid package for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, bringing Britain's total contribution to 30 million.
Speaking at the World Food Programme distribution centre in the Beirut suburb of Bourj Hammoud, Hague admitted that humanitarian aid was not enough.
"What we need above all is a solution to the crisis in Syria, and this is no substitute for that. We continue to work every day on trying to find that diplomatic and political solution.
"But in the absence of a solution, we have to do everything we can to help people in urgent need," Hague said.
Of the more than 800,000 Syrians who have fled to neighbouring countries, Lebanon has taken in the highest number - nearly 300,000 people who live scattered across the country in the absence of refugee camps.
According to Doctors Without Borders, more than half of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in substandard structures with little to no protection from the elements and struggle to pay rent after losing their livelihoods.
Hague, who arrived in Beirut on Wednesday and also met Premier Najib Mikati, expressed British support for stability in Lebanon, which is sharply divided between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime.
He also said Britain would increase military assistance to the Lebanese military and would help train more than 2,000 troops in the coming year.