BEIRUT — A powerful car bomb ripped through central Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Thursday, killing dozens and dramatizing the wide gulf between the persistent violence on the ground and fledgling efforts to jump start peace talks in the country’s almost 2-year-old war.
State media said at least 53 people were killed and 235 injured in a devastating midmorning attack that yielded disturbing images of smoldering vehicles and charred and dismembered bodies scattered about on a usually bustling avenue in the heart of the Syrian capital. Most of the victims were pedestrians, motorists and schoolchildren, state media reported.
The bombing on al-Thawra Street in the Mazraa district was among the most lethal attacks to date in a capital that has been mostly insulated from the violence raging elsewhere in the country. Last May, a pair of suicide car bombs outside a military intelligence complex in Damascus reportedly killed 55 and wounded more than 300.
The explosive Thursday reportedly detonated at a checkpoint, one of many in the heavily militarized capital. Dozens of vehicles were set ablaze or battered in the blast, which was heard throughout the city of more than 2 million and sent a thick column of black smoke into the air.
The attack occurred near an office of the ruling Baath Party and not far from the Russian Embassy, which reported some damages but no injuries. It was not clear if either site was the target.
The government of President Bashar Assad called the blast a suicide attack and said its forces thwarted another suicide bomber at the scene.
The bombing comes as rebels based in the city’s outskirts have stepped up attacks on Damascus, the heavily guarded bastion of Assad and his ruling circle. Rebels have fired mortars into the capital and attacked checkpoints guarding the city, while the military has responded with aerial bombardment and shelling of the opposition’s suburban strongholds.
The latest carnage did little to elevate hopes for a political solution to the crisis. The images of slaughter and mayhem flashed on TV sets as opposition representatives met in Cairo to set a framework for future talks and the Syrian foreign minister was preparing for a trip to Moscow. Russia, Syria’s close ally, is seeking to broker negotiations.
Whether peace talks will occur amid the poisoned atmosphere of deep mutual mistrust prevalent in Syria remains a question. The opposition says any talks must lead to Assad’s ouster, a position rejected by Damascus.
The official media cast Thursday’s mayhem as the true face of the opposition — a band of foreign-based Islamic militants, as the regime says, running amok in a nation long known for religious tolerance.
“What on earth is happening?” one distraught man at the scene told state television. “This is not Islam. We condemn this.”
A woman whose face was splattered with blood denounced the rebel Free Syrian Army “a bunch of thugs and thieves.”
The Free Syrian Army disavowed responsibility for the attack, expressed condolences to the victims and blamed the strike on the government. The opposition has regularly accused authorities of staging spectacular, al-Qaida-style strikes in a bid to discredit the rebel cause.
Car bombs, however, are known to be in the rebel arsenal, important counterweights to the military’s massive firepower advantage.
Both sides in the bloody Syrian conflict have vehemently disavowed responsibility for mass-casualty attacks in a war that has killed almost 70,000 people, mostly civilians, according to the United Nations.
After Thursday’s explosion, there were reports of shells fired into the center of the capital, possibly aimed at military headquarters near Umayyad Square. Area residents abandoned the streets, and some took cover in basements, as security forces swarmed the area. The government appeared to respond with artillery from positions on Mount Qassion, which overlooks the capital.
The official news agency also said an unexploded car bomb — loaded with cylindrical water heaters filled with explosives — had been seized at the scene. The “suicide terrorist” driving that vehicle was arrested, the state news agency said.
In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry called on governments backing the opposition — a group that includes the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, among others — to use their influence to demand an “immediate halt to such terrorist acts and armed violence as a whole to create proper conditions for a wide inter-Syrian dialogue,” said Alexander Lukashevich, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman.