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Car Bomb Near Syrian Security Center Kills 17

DAMASCUS (Reuters) -- A powerful car bomb exploded near a security complex in the Syrian capital Damascus on September 27, killing 17 civilians in what the interior minister said was a terrorist attack.

The bombing, on the road to the city's main airport, was the third major attack in the tightly controlled country this year.

State television said the car was rigged with 200 kilograms of explosives, making it one of the biggest attacks in Damascus since a series of bombings in the early 1980s by Islamist militants.

There was no indication of who might have carried it out.

"This is definitely a terrorism attack that occurred in a crowded area. This is a cowardly attack," Interior Minister General Bassam Abdel Majeed told state television. He said 14 people were wounded in the attack, although witnesses said the number was much higher.

The blast occurred at a crowded intersection leading to the Sit Zeinab shrine, popular with Shi'ite pilgrims from Iran and Lebanon.

Security forces cordoned off the area but witnesses said the security centre's main building appeared to have suffered little damage.

Television showed smashed car windshields and shattered windows in nearby residential buildings and a large crater filled with water at the blast site. Some industrial buildings about 100 metres away were also damaged and the remains of the destroyed car were strewn on the highway, witnesses said.

"Smoke filled nearby buildings...I rushed to the street and found a burning car, fire and smoke," one eye witness told state television.

Another said: "I was sleeping...and then the doors came loose and I felt like I was in the street. Glass windows were destroyed and the ceiling's iron infrastructure was visible. We thought it was an earthquake."

Challenge To Syrian Authorities

Syrian authorities pride themselves on maintaining stability in the country of 19 million people by cracking down on dissent and opposition but their control has been challenged by a series of violent events.

The attack was the first explosion in Damascus since the car bomb assassination of Imad Moughniyah, military commander of the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah, in February. Hezbollah blames Israel for that attack although Israel denies it.

Last month, a senior security commander who was the International Atomic Energy Agency's main Syrian contact was shot dead at a beach resort near the port of Tartous in mysterious circumstances.

The country has also witnessed violence by Muslim militants in recent years with security forces clashing with militant groups on some occasions. In September 2006, four Syrians tried to storm the U.S. embassy in Damascus in a bold attack in which four assailants and a Syrian guard were killed.

Syria has been ruled by the Ba'ath party since it took power in a coup in 1963 and banned all opposition. The security apparatus is key to Syria's support for Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006 and wields huge influence on government.

The country is also home to the Palestinian Islamist group's Hamas leadership and is under pressure to scale back links with the group, Iran, and Hezbollah in recent indirect peace talk rounds with Israel.

The U.S.-backed Iraqi government is also pushing Damascus to stop anti-U.S. rebels from infiltrating over the border.

The blast occurred as Syria is emerging from international isolation due to its peace talks with Israel and cooperation on Lebanon.

This month French President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first Western head of state to pay an official visit to Syria since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

French officials believed the attack was orchestrated from Syria, the former military power in neighbouring Lebanon.