Middle East

Syria crisis: Damascus car bomb 'kills 15'

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Media captionThe BBC's Jim Muir: "As far as we can see, this was just a random bombing"

A car bomb has exploded in the centre of Syria's capital Damascus, killing at least 15 people and wounding 53, state media report.

The blast happened in a busy residential and commercial area, close to schools and Syria's central bank.

Huge plumes of black smoke could be seen rising over the area as emergency services raced to the scene.

At least 70,000 people have died since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began just over two years ago.

Meanwhile UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday that an inspection team was in Cyprus waiting for permission to enter Syria to investigate reports of chemical weapon attacks during the conflict.

Speaking in The Hague, he said such reports "should be examined without delay, without conditions and without exceptions" but explained that the UN was still in "technical and legal" negotiations with Mr Assad's government over the team's deployment.

'Ground shook'

Syrian state media said a suicide bomber detonated a vehicle packed with explosives between Sabaa Bahrat Square and Shahbander street, a busy area of Damascus that is home to the country's central bank, the finance ministry, a state-run investment agency, mosques and schools.

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Media captionBan Ki-moon: "A technical team is in Cyprus and ready to enter Syria"

Television footage showed extensive damage, including the burnt-out remains of dozens of cars. Two nearby buildings were engulfed in flames.

As the dense smoke cleared from the area, bodies could be seen lying in the street amid the debris.

"I was in the street with my colleague when the ground shook beneath our feet," 32-year-old Anana told the AFP news agency.

"People started to scream 'explosion, explosion' and we saw a cloud of thick, black smoke emerge from the scene of the attack."

Sirens rang out across the city as ambulances and fire engines rushed to the scene.

The wounded were shown being stretchered to ambulances.

Security forces and the army moved in quickly to prevent people from approaching.

This is the second large car bomb attack in Damascus in recent months. At least 53 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in an attack on the ruling Baath party headquarters on 22 February.

A suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a mosque in Damascus's Mazraa district last month, killing 42 people including Sheikh Mohammed al-Buti, a prominent Sunni supporter of President Assad.