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Deadly Damascus blast

February 21, 2013

Dozens of people have been killed after a car bomb went off near the offices of the ruling Baath party in Damascus.This came as the main opposition met to discuss the possiblilty of opening talks with the government.

Vehicles burn after an explosion at central Damascus February 21, 2013, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA. The big explosion shook the central Damascus district of Mazraa on Thursday, residents said, and Syrian state media blamed what it said was a suicide bombing on "terrorists" battling President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian television broadcast footage of at least four bodies strewn along a main street and firefighters dousing the charred remains of dozens of burning vehicles. Black smoke billowed into the sky. REUTERS/Sana
Image: Reuters

Video footage broadcast on Syria's official Al-Ekhbariya television channel showed images of burning vehicles and what appeared to be dead bodies lying on the ground. Smoke was also seen rising over the Syrian capital.

Syrian state television said the blast had killed 53 and wounded more than 200.

The Associated Press cited eyewitnesses who said the blast was the result of a car bomb that went off in the central Mazraa neighbourhood of Damascus.

Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti news agency reported that the nearby Russian Embassy was also damaged in the explosion.

The blast came as members of the main opposition Syrian National Coalition met in Cairo to discuss the possibility of entering talks with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"The agenda is long and among the issues to be discussed is the initiative of Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib," Khaled Nasser told the AFP news agency, referring to the Coalition's president.

A copy of a communiqué to be presented at the Cairo meeting indicated that the Coalition had softened its tone slightly, with regard to the preconditions for opening talks. Instead of demanding that Assad leave office before any discussions could begin, it simply called for the president and his associates to be held accountable.

"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," the communiqué said. "They have to be held accountable for the crimes they have committed."

However, the Syrian National Council, which is a key part of the coalition continues to reject any talks until Assad leaves office.

Thursday's Cairo meeting comes a day after Russia, a key Assad ally, expressed optimism that progress towards ending the conflict could come soon.

"There are signs of positive tendencies, signs of tendencies for dialogue both from the side of the government and the opposition," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters said after a meeting with the head of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi and other Arab diplomats in Moscow.

Russia, which has used its veto on the United Nations Security Council to block resolutions designed to put pressure on the Assad regime, has repeatedly called for talks to end the conflict, which has killed at least 70,000 people since March 2011, according to UN estimates.

pfd/rg (AP, AFP)