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Suicide bomb kills 4 in Syrian capital’s Old City

Syrian police and others inspected damaged stores close to where a suicide bomber blew himself up near a church.

EPA/SANA HANDOUT

Syrian police and others inspected damaged stores close to where a suicide bomber blew himself up near a church.

DAMASCUS, Syria — A suicide bomber blew himself up near the headquarters of Syria’s Greek Orthodox Church in Damascus’ Old City, killing at least four people Thursday, minutes after the patriarch had entered the cathedral, state-run TV and a church official said.

The blast in the ancient quarter of narrow streets and historic buildings was the first reported suicide attack of the Syrian civil war inside the Old City, although other such bombs have struck the capital city during the conflict.

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The blast struck in the vicinity of the Virgin Mary Cathedral in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Bab Sharqi, the broadcast said, although it was not clear if the church was the attack’s target.

Several people also were wounded, the broadcast said.

SANA, Syria’s state-run news agency, said a nearby clinic run by a Muslim charity appeared to be the target. That was also the view of Bishop Ghattas Hazim, who spoke to the Associated Press from Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV, which has reporters in Damascus, said the target of the attack appeared to be a nearby post of the National Defense Forces, a paramilitary force fighting the rebels who are trying to topple President Bashar Assad.

Residents also disagreed about the target, with some saying the bomber may have detonated the explosives prematurely. Progovernment gunmen were seen roaming the streets afterward.

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The blast occurred nearly 15 minutes after John Yazigi, the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, entered the church, but he was unhurt, according to an aide.

A government official told the Associated Press that the bomber was wearing a belt of explosives and blew himself up near the church.

An AP reporter who visited the area saw that the explosion occurred about 50 yards from the church and damaged several shops.

‘‘I heard an explosion. Then glass started flying, and the place was full of dust,’’ said shop owner Abdo Muqri, whose right arm and forehead were injured. ‘‘I was watching television inside. Had I been near the door, I would have been dead.’’

Bab Sharqi and the nearby Bab Touma, two main areas of the Old City, were famous for their restaurants and cafes that used to be packed until nightfall before the civil war began.

Churches have been targeted before in the civil war, mostly in the central city of Homs and Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, in the north.

Christians are one of the largest religious minorities in Syria, making up about 10 percent of the population of 23 million people. They have tried to stay on the sidelines of the conflict, although as Islamist militants have increasingly joined with the opposition, many Christians have been leaning toward the regime.

As the bloodshed has intensified, hopes for an international conference to try to reach a political settlement between the regime and opposition have faded.

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