Major blasts shake Syria capital Damascus near intelligence agency HQ
TWO strong explosions have shaken the Syrian capital, sending a plume of thick black smoke into the sky.
The cause of the blasts was not immediately clear. State-run TV said the explosions were in the Qazaz neighbourhood, where a state intelligence agency has its headquarters.
The explosion happened at about 7.50am, when employees are usually arriving at work. Witnesses said the explosions heavily damaged the military intelligence building and left bodies in the streets. The death toll was not immediately clear.
Central Damascus is tightly under the control of forces loyal to president Bashar Assad but has been struck by several bomb attacks, often targeting security installations or convoys.
The most recent major explosion in the capital occurred on April 27 when a suicide bomber in Damascus detonated an explosives belt near members of the security forces, killing at least nine people and wounding 26.
Syria's conflict started in March 2011 with mass protests calling for political reform. The government swiftly cracked down, dispatching tanks, troops, snipers and pro-government thugs to quash dissent, and many members of the opposition took up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops. Many soldiers also switched sides.
The UN said weeks ago that more than 9,000 people had been killed, and hundreds more have died since.
International diplomacy has failed to stop the bloodshed, and the UN has ruled out military intervention of the type that helped bring down Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, in part out of fear that it could exacerbate the violence.
On Wednesday, a roadside bomb hit a Syrian military truck in a southern province seconds after the head of the UN observer team was driving by in a convoy, demonstrating the fragility of the international plan to end the country's bloodshed.
In Washington, US president Barack Obama took steps to extend sanctions against Assad's government, saying Syria poses an "unusual and extraordinary threat" to US national security and diplomatic goals.