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Syria minister unscathed in car bomb attack

Blast fits pattern of attempts on officials’ lives

The charred remains of a car following the bomb attack on Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi of Syria in Damascus.

SANA via Reuters

The charred remains of a car following the bomb attack on Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi of Syria in Damascus.

BEIRUT — In the latest reported attack on a high-ranking Syrian official, Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi survived what appeared to be an assassination attempt Monday in an upscale neighborhood of Damascus when a car bomb exploded near his convoy, according to state-run media and opposition reports.

The attack took place in Mezze, a central district of the capital where many senior officials live.

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The prime minister was unhurt, but two people were killed and 11 wounded in the blast, a government official told the Associated Press. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group based in Britain, put the death toll at five, including two of Halqi’s bodyguards and one of the drivers in his convoy.

Video on state television showed a car reduced to a charred skeleton and, nearby, a bus with its windows shattered.

The assault fit a pattern of attempts to attack high officials. Less than two weeks ago, another official — Ali Balan, the government’s chief coordinator of emergency aid distribution to civilians — was killed by gunmen with silencer-equipped weapons at a restaurant in the same heavily guarded neighborhood, close to buildings housing government and military institutions.

In July, an explosion at a security headquarters in the Syrian capital killed or wounded several key aides loyal to President Bashar Assad, who has been fighting a growing revolt that began with street protests in March 2011 and has escalated into a bloody civil war with insurgents battling for positions across the land, including the outskirts of Damascus.

State television in Syria called the attack a ‘‘terrorist explosion’’ that was ‘‘an attempt to target the convoy of the prime minister.’’ Terrorist is the word used by the authorities to depict their armed adversaries.

Halqi has been part of an effort by Assad to wage an energized diplomatic campaign to persuade the United States that it is on the wrong side of the civil war. “We are partners in fighting terrorism,’’ Halqi said of the United States in a recent interview.

Halqi, who was appointed prime minister in August after his predecessor defected, heads a ministerial committee that has been trying to implement a peace plan that Assad outlined in a speech in January.

The peace initiative has never gotten off the ground because the political opposition abroad has dismissed it as a political ploy and continues to demand Assad’s departure.

At the United Nations on Monday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with the leader of his newly appointed fact-finding panel on suspected chemical weapons use in Syria and reiterated his request that the Syrian government allow it to enter the country.

Speaking to reporters, Ban said that the panel leader, Ake Sellstrom, and his specialists ‘‘remain ready to deploy to Syria within 24 to 48 hours’’ of consent by the Syrian government, which requested the panel last month.

Their trip has been stalled over Syria’s objections to giving the panel unlimited access to all suspected sites of chemical weapons use. Syria has insisted that the panel investigate only one suspected attack outside Aleppo on March 19, in which it contends that insurgents used chemical agents.

Ban also told reporters he takes ‘‘very seriously’’ the assessment of US intelligence agencies, disclosed last week, that concluded with varying degrees of certainty that chemical weapons had been used in the Syrian conflict.

“Onsite activities are essential if the United Nations is to be able to establish the facts and clear up all the doubts surrounding this issue,’’ Ban said.

In Jerusalem, a former defense minister of Israel said in an interview with the Associated Press that he believed some chemical weapons had been transferred by the Syrian government to Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese group that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization.

The former defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, did not supply any evidence for his assertion, which did not represent an official assessment.

Over the weekend, a new jihadi group calling itself the Ahrar al-Bekaa Brigades disclosed its formation and warned the pro-Syrian Lebanese militant Hezbollah group to stop intervening in the Syrian civil war or face attacks in Lebanon.

According to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks Islamist extremist messages, the statement was distributed on anti-Assad Facebook pages Sunday. In the statement, the previously unheard-of brigades group claims that Hezbollah is acting on Iran’s orders to ‘‘slaughter’’ the Syrian people. It pledged to prevent Hezbollah’s intervention ‘‘with all means and ways, even if we have to move the fight to the inside of the Lebanese territory.’’

The Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah is known to be backing regime fighters in Shi’ite villages near the Lebanon border against the mostly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Assad. The Syrian opposition accuses Hezbollah of taking part in the Syrian military crackdown.

The Syrian uprising began with largely peaceful antigovernment protests in March 2011 and has killed more than 70,000 people, according to the United Nations. The insurgency has also become increasingly radicalized, with strong infiltration by Al Qaeda.

Through much of western Europe, scores of Islamic youths have heeded the call to take up arms for the cause in Syria, which is only a few hours away by plane. The phenomenon has alarmed authorities who are trying to stop youths from joining militant causes abroad.

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