Antakya, Turkey – At least two large explosions struck a military headquarters in a busy square in central Damascus on Wednesday morning, setting fire to the building on the second day of dramatic bombings in the Syrian capital, according to witnesses and state television, as the conflict dominated debate at the United Nations in New York.
In gunfire that broke out after the explosions, a television correspondent, Maya Nasser, who worked for the Iranian English-language satellite broadcaster Press TV, was killed by a sniper during a live broadcast, the station said. Press TV said “foreign-backed insurgents” had shot the correspondent. No independent account was immediately available of who opened fire on the correspondent, who was described by The Associated Press as a 33-year-old Syrian citizen.
Press TV said its Damascus bureau chief, Hussein Murtada, also came under attack and was injured.
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The blast sent a huge pall of dark smoke over central Damascus and was described as the biggest since explosions on July 18 killed several of President Bashar al-Assad’s key security aides, including the defense minister and the president’s brother-in-law.
The rebellious Free Syrian Army took responsibility for the blast on Wednesday.
While the full scope of casualties was not immediately clear, a Syrian Army statement said that “armed terrorist gangs, with foreign links, carried out a new terrorist act this morning by blowing up an explosives-laden car and a bomb at the Army General Command, which damaged the building, caused a fire and wounded some of the guards.”
The turmoil began around 7 a.m., witnesses and activists in Damascus said. It was the second successive day of bombing attacks on government facilities in and around Damascus, and the explosions seemed to demonstrate the continued ability of antigovernment fighters to strike close to centers of power, despite weeks of the Syrian military fighting rebels around the capital.
On Tuesday, insurgents bombed a school they claimed was being used as a headquarters and a barracks for military officers and the government’s plainclothes security enforcers, known as shabiha.
On Wednesday, state television said two bombs exploded in the general staff headquarters in Umayyad Square near other heavily guarded government facilities.
About two hours after the explosions, Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, disputing rebel claims that dozens had been killed, said on state television that a “terrorist attack” had caused a large explosion but that the staff in the building and the nearby television headquarters were unharmed.
“All the military commanders and media persons are safe,” Mr. Zoubi said, according to the SANA official news agency. “The terrorist explosions were confined to material damages.”
But he said that one of the two bombs may have been placed inside a fence meant to protect the army general staff building in Umayyad Square.
“Syria is facing a battle, but not a battle in the political sense,” Mr. Zoubi said. “We are facing a brutal aggression, therefore the Syrian people and the armed forces have no choice except defending their homeland.”
He said the authorities would hold “no dialogue with Syria’s enemies abroad nor with those who conspire against Syria with foreign sides as well as no international conferences with those who share in the conspiracy against Syria,” SANA said.
Hala Jaber, a journalist for The Sunday Times of London currently in Damascus, posted pictures of a fire at the military headquarters online Wednesday morning, showing smoke engulfing the facility. “Huge explosion now followed by sound of gunfire and siren of ambulances,” she wrote on Twitter, saying that a second explosion was heard shortly afterward.
Shortly after 9 a.m., there was a third explosion, she wrote. “Sounds more like a rocket fired than a car bomb.” The explosions came a day after insurgent bombs exploded at a Damascus school building, and Syrian government shells landed in the disputed Golan Heights region held by Israel.
At the United Nations in New York, President François Hollande of France called Tuesday for outside military intervention to protect areas in Syria held by the rebels and told the General Assembly in his first speech there that the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which has been widely accused by Western and Arab countries of brutality in its campaign to crush the insurgency, “has no future among us.”
President Obama, in his remarks to the General Assembly, said Syria’s future “must not belong to a dictator who massacres his people.” But neither he nor Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton detailed new initiatives to address the spiraling violence in Syria, where an estimated 20,000 people have been killed and millions have been displaced since the anti-Assad uprising began with peaceful protests in March 2011.
“If there is a cause that cries out for protest in the world today, it is a regime that tortures children and shoots rockets at apartment buildings,” Mr. Obama said, “and we must remain engaged to assure that what began with citizens demanding their rights does not end in a cycle of sectarian violence.”
In Damascus, accounts from both the insurgent and government sides on Tuesday said multiple bombs exploded at the school. Ambulances raced to the scene as smoke plumes rose above the city, but accounts of the use of that school and the extent of the casualties diverged sharply.
The Syrian state news agency said two bombs had exploded, wounding seven people and lightly damaging the school. The rebel group that claimed responsibility for the attack, calling itself the Grandchildren of the Prophet, said it planted nine bombs and killed senior officers and scores of other security agents who had commandeered the school and were using it as a military headquarters.
However, the group provided no immediate proof for that assertion, and another activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said that 24 people had been wounded in the attack, most of them soldiers.
A shopkeeper in the area said he saw smoke rising from the school and from other locations nearby. The school, he said, had been used as a military base and a barracks for soldiers fighting the rebels in the southern suburbs of Damascus.
He said he saw about 10 ambulances in the area after the explosions. “Damascus has become a nightmare to live in,” he said. “Checkpoints are everywhere.”
Elsewhere, heavy clashes were reported between the Syrian government and rebel fighters near the border with Israel. Military officers said mortar shells landed near a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 war. No injuries or damage was reported, but Israeli officials expressed concern about the conflict’s widening reach.
“The shells were aimed at villages inside Syria and are actually part of the internal, ongoing conflict inside Syria,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement. “Fire from Syria leaking into Israel will not be accepted.”
A Syrian resident who lives near the site of the fighting said it started around 7 a.m., with clashes and explosions near large military checkpoints, as rebel fighters tried to drive government troops from two villages, Jubata al-Khashab and Khan Arnabah, in Quneitra Province.
Despite the demands at the United Nations for an end to the Syria conflict, the prospects for a diplomatic solution appear remote.
Mrs. Clinton met with the new special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who represents both the United Nations and the Arab League, a day after he delivered a gloomy assessment of the conflict to the Security Council.
A senior State Department official said the two compared notes but did not detail any new plans for reviving the diplomatic process. “Brahimi is very focused on how you create the conditions for some kind of diplomatic process to unfold,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as part of the department’s protocol, “but he is also realistic that right at the moment we are not around the corner from a diplomatic process being launched.”
The United States continues to oppose military intervention, and the administration sees little hope that Mr. Assad’s strongest backers, Russia and China, are willing to ease their opposition to any coercive resolutions by the Security Council, which both have vetoed three times.
“It’s basically been our view since the third veto by the Russians and the Chinese that the most profitable investment of our time and energy is not at the moment in the Security Council,” the official said. “It’s in supporting the opposition on the ground.”
To that end, the official said, Mrs. Clinton will participate in several meetings later in the week intended to strengthen and unify opposition forces that remain deeply divided.