DAMASCUS A powerful car bomb exploded near a security complex in the Syrian capital Damascus on Saturday, killing 17 civilians in the third major attack in the tightly controlled country this year.
No group claimed responsibility for the bombing on the road to the city's main airport, but Syria's interior minister described it as a terrorist attack, indicating that investigators suspect Muslim militants were involved.
"This is definitely a terrorism attack that occurred in a crowded area. This is a cowardly attack," Interior Minister General Bassam Abdel Majeed told state television.
State TV said the car was rigged with 200 kgs (440 pounds) of explosives, making it one of the biggest attacks in Damascus since bombings in the early 1980s by Islamist militants.
Abdel Majeed said 17 people were killed and 14 wounded. Some witnesses said the number of wounded was much higher.
The blast was at a crowded junction leading to the Sit Zeinab shrine, which is popular with Shi'ite pilgrims from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
Witnesses said the security complex's main building appeared largely undamaged, although television footage showed smashed car windshields and shattered windows in nearby residential buildings, wrecked cars and a large crater at the blast site.
"CRIMINAL ACT OF TERRORISM"
One witness said some people initially thought it was an earthquake when they felt the blast's force.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke out against the attack, while a State Department spokesman said the U.S. had closed the consular section of its embassy except for emergency services and would reopen on October 5 after the Eid holiday.
The U.N. Security Council and the French, Russian and Lebanese presidents condemned the attack.
"It's a criminal act of terrorism that targeted the residents of the city. Unfortunately, in the years following the U.S. war on terror, terrorism has spread even more," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told al-Arabiya television from New York.
"These incidents happen everywhere and do not mean a security breach. Be assured that security in Syria will remain alert for the safety of its civilians and land."
Authorities have maintained stability in the country of 19 million people by cracking down on dissent but their control has been challenged recently by a series of violent events.
The attack was the first explosion in Damascus since the car bomb assassination of Imad Moughniyah, military commander of the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah, in February. Hezbollah blames Israel for that attack although Israel denies it.
Last month, a senior military aide to President Bashar al-Assad who was also the International Atomic Energy Agency's main Syrian contact was shot dead in northern Syria.
The country has also witnessed violence by Muslim militants in recent years. In 2006, four Syrians tried to storm the U.S. embassy. They and a guard all died.
"The attack is very disturbing. It's scary because it reminds every Syrian of the late 1970s and early 1980s when the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood was blowing everyone up," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at Oklahoma University.
"The fear is al Qaeda could be potent. So far al Qaeda has not been potent in Syria. It has shown an extraordinary level of absence and incompetence in Syria."
Syria has been ruled by the Baath party since it took power in a coup in 1963 and banned all opposition. The security apparatus is key to Syria's support for its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006.
The country is also home to the Palestinian Islamist group's Hamas leadership and is under pressure to loosen links with the group, Iran, and Hezbollah in indirect peace talk with Israel.
The U.S.-backed Iraqi government is also pushing Damascus to stop anti-U.S. rebels, including al Qaeda fighters, from infiltrating over the border.
The blast took place as Syria emerges from international isolation following talks with Israel and its Lebanon efforts.
This month French President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first Western president to pay a visit to Syria since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
French officials believed the attack was orchestrated from Syria, the former military power in neighboring Lebanon.
(Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Sue Pleming in New York; Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Firouz Sedarat in Dubai; Writing by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; Editing by Matthew Jones)
(For a chronology on recent attacks in Syria, please click on nLR129410))