Middle East

Suicide bombings hit central Syria town of Palmyra

Video clip purportedly showing smoke rising from Palmyra (Tadmor) in central Syria (6 February 2013)
Image caption Video footage purportedly showed a large cloud of smoke rising from the town

Several people have been killed in twin suicide car bombings in the central Syrian town of Palmyra, reports say.

The official Sana news agency said the attack took place in a residential area in Palmyra, a town about 220km (140 miles) north-east of Damascus.

One activist group said a military intelligence building had been targeted and that at least 19 members of the security forces had died.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting has been reported in the east of the capital.

The local authorities closed Abbasid Square, a major roundabout, and Fares al-Khouri Street after rebel fighters attacked army roadblocks with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, activists and witnesses said.

"The areas of Jobar, Zamalka, Zablatani and parts of Qaboun and the ring-road have become a battleground," activist Fida Mohammad told the Reuters news agency.

Other activists reported that a tank stationed at the al-Kabbas roadblock had been destroyed, that chants of "God is Greatest" had been broadcast from mosque speakers in Jobar, and that tanks stationed on the edge of the central district of Medan had shelled southern areas.

Sana said the army was "continuing its operations against the terrorists in Arbeen, Zamalka, Harasta and Sabina, destroying the criminal liars".

The violence is some of the worst to hit Damascus in several weeks.

'Retaliatory shelling'

The attack in Palmyra, which is known locally as Tadmor, occurred at about 06:00 local time (08:00 GMT), according to local activists.

The first bomber reportedly blew up his explosives-laden car next to back a wall of the military intelligence compound in the town. The second assailant is then said to have driven through the hole, detonating the bomb inside his vehicle and destroying parts of the facility.

Video footage purportedly showed a cloud of smoke rising from the town.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based activist group, said at least 19 members of the security services had been killed and many others injured.

Abu al-Hassan, one of the local activists, told Reuters that tanks stationed inside the intelligence compound had fired shells into an adjacent residential district following the attack, killing several civilians.

The SOHR said eight civilians had been injured, some severely, by heavy gunfire that followed the bombings.

Sana said several people had been killed and injured in the bombings, and that they had caused huge material damage.

There were protests in Palmyra at the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, but the army has since tightened control of the town, which is situated near a major oil pipeline junction.

Situated at an oasis in the Syrian desert, Palmyra is known across the world as the home of the monumental ruins of a great Roman-era city that was one of the most important cultural cities of the ancient world.

It is also the location of an infamous jail where thousands of people were allegedly detained, tortured and executed after an uprising against the late President Hafez al-Assad in the 1980s by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a separate development, the head of the main opposition alliance said the government had to start releasing detainees by this Sunday if it wanted to take up his offer of talks with Vice-President Farouq al-Sharaa.

"I need all the women to be released. If any woman stays in prison I consider the regime not responding for our initiative," Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the National Coalition, told BBC Arabic.

Last week, Mr Khatib announced he was "ready for direct discussions" as long as two conditions were met - the release of the 160,000 people he said were being held in prisons and intelligence facilities, and the resumption of the issuing of new passports by Syrian embassies.

Damascus has not yet responded to the offer, but the pro-government al-Watan newspaper said it was two years too late.