A powerful car bomb exploded near a Syrian intelligence agency office Saturday morning in Damascus, the Syrian capital, killing 17 people and wounding at least 14 in the worst attack the country has seen since the 1980s.
The explosion came only hours after Syria's foreign minister held a rare meeting in New York with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The bomb, which the authorities said included more than 400 pounds of explosives, detonated at 8:45 a.m. near an intersection crowded with pedestrians and close to a major Shiite shrine. The Syrian state news agency reported that all of the dead and wounded were civilians, although at least one of the injured was a traffic policeman.
The bombing followed two unusual political assassinations this year in Syria, a police state that generally maintains a tight grip on security, and it contributed to a growing sense of alarm about the possibility of internal subversion or foreign interference.
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The bombing also occurred less than three months after Islamist inmates rioted at a prison outside the capital, taking hostages and engaging in gunbattles with the authorities, in a confrontation that dragged on for weeks.
In the 1980s, the Syrian state, which is secular, battled hard-line Sunni Islamist rebels for years in a struggle that left tens of thousands dead.
Saturday's blast took place near an intersection on the highway leading south to the airport, not far from the Sayyida Zainab shrine. The shrine draws Shiite pilgrims from across the region, including large numbers of Iranians.
About half a million Iraqi refugees also live in the densely populated area; most of them fled Iraq after war erupted there in 2003.
The bomb detonated close to an office of one of Syria's highly secretive security services, according to shopkeepers and residents in the area. It destroyed or damaged dozens of cars along the highway, and shrapnel scarred building facades and shattered glass through an entire city block.
Interior Minister Gen. Basam Abd al-Majid told Syrian state television that the people behind the attack were “terrorists” and that investigators were tracking them down, but that “we can't point the finger at any side.”