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Syrian PM survives bomb attack in capital

Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi escaped an assassination bid on Monday, surviving a blast against his convoy in Damascus, in the latest attack on top members of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The attack was followed by an air raid on Halqi’s hometown of Jassem, in the flashpoint southern province of Daraa, that killed 11 people including eight rebels, a watchdog said.

The attacks came as UN chief Ban Ki-moon issued a new plea to Damascus to stop blocking an international inquiry into the alleged use of chemical weapons and Republican lawmakers in the United States stepped up calls for American action on the claims.

As the violence raged on the ground, the United States said Syria’s regime beefed up its air defences with technical support from ally Moscow, and Interfax news agency reported a Russian passenger jet narrowly avoided two missiles fired at it on Monday as it flew over Syria from an Egyptian resort.

Syrian state television said Halqi was unharmed in the blast in the upmarket Damascus neighbourhood of Mazzeh.

“The terrorist explosion in Mazzeh was an attempt to target the prime minister’s convoy and Dr. Wael al-Halqi was unharmed,” the television reported, adding the blast had caused casualties.

The blast, apparently detonated by remote control, killed six people including one of Halqi’s bodyguards, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, adding a second bodyguard and driver were in critical condition.

State television said the explosion happened near a garden and school in Mazzeh, a well-secured district home to politicians, embassies, government offices and intelligence facilities.

“I was walking in the street when suddenly there was a very powerful explosion and I saw a car burning and people running,” a young man told AFP at the scene.

“I heard glass shattering,” he added, saying he had tried to hide for fear a second explosion would follow.

An AFP photographer at the site said vehicles were destroyed, including a bus that was burned out. The windshields of other cars nearby were also blown out.

Official television showed Halqi attending a government meeting and giving a statement afterwards, but it was unclear if the footage was from before or after the attack.

A news bulletin quoted Halqi as saying “these types of attacks are nothing but proof of the discouragement and despair of the terrorist groups as a result of the actions of the Syrian army”.

Halqi, who was appointed prime minister in August 2012 after his predecessor Riad Hijab defected to the opposition, is the latest in a growing list of officials to be targeted for assassination.

In July 2012, a suicide bomb attack killed the defence and deputy defence ministers and seriously wounded the interior minister.

Damascus has also been targeted in major bombings, including one in the city centre that killed at least 15 people on April 9.

Assad’s forces also clashed on Monday with rebels near the capital’s international airport, said the Observatory, adding that at least 41 people were killed nationwide.

A security source reported fighting with a small armed group on the airport highway early morning, forcing the road’s closure.

The attack on Halqi came as Republican lawmakers piled pressure on the US administration to take action over Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

But despite the criticism of President Barack Obama’s inaction, there was little agreement on precisely what to do.

“There’s a growing consensus in the US Senate that the United States should get involved,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, acknowledging however that “Syria is difficult” and any action would be risky.

And international consensus remains elusive, with Russia standing by Assad and warning a search for weapons of mass destruction should not be used to oust him.

“There are governments and outside players that believe that all means are appropriate to overthrow the Syrian regime,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“But the subject of using weapons of mass destruction is too serious — it should not be joked around with.”

The UN secretary general met with Ake Sellstrom, the head of the team set up to probe the suspected use of chemical weapons, saying later he takes the reports “seriously”.

“I again urge the Syrian authorities to allow the investigation to proceed without delay and without any conditions,” said Ban.