Syria’s civil war has burst into central Damascus and its indiscriminate violence has put civilians in the firing line.
Thursday’s powerful bomb which killed more than 60 people in the capital’s Mazraa district may have targeted President Bashar al-Assad’s ruling Baath Party or the embassy of his ally Russia.
But many of the victims were ordinary Damascenes in the wrong place at the wrong time - including children packed into an elementary school directly behind the Baath Party offices.
“It’s in horrendous shape, it’s a war zone,” said the mother of a girl who attends Abdullah ibn al Zubair school, describing shattered windows and iron bars hanging from broken concrete.
A car bomb killed 53 people and wounded 200 in central Damascus on Thursday when it blew up on a busy highway close to ruling Baath Party offices and the Russian Embassy, Syrian television said.
TV footage showed charred and bloodied bodies strewn across the street after the blast, which state media said was the result of a suicide bombing by “terrorists” battling President Bashar al-Assad.
Central Damascus has been relatively insulated from almost two years of unrest and civil war in which around 70,000 people have been killed across the country, but the bloodshed has shattered suburbs around the capital.
Rebels who control districts to the south and east of Damascus have attacked Assad’s power base for nearly a month and struck with devastating bombs over the last year.
By day, the streets of Syria’s capital are crowded with cars and with shoppers. It looks normal, but it isn’t - by noon, people are planning how to get home before nightfall.
Roads suddenly blocked by the army cause traffic jams. Workers race to quit the office, hit the shops and get home by dark. Dark is when the kidnappers come out to seek new victims, and the clashes raging on the outskirts creep ever closer to the heart of Damascus.
For months, the people of Damascus have nervously watched their ancient city dragged deeper into Syria’s bloody conflict.
Fighting has already laid waste to much of the northern city of Aleppo and burned parts of its vaulted Old City quarter to the ground. Whole swathes of central Homs have been reduced to rubble.
“I’ve seen what happens and have a sinking feeling about what comes next. We fear killing and bombing, we fear being forced to flee, or being looted by the army or the rebels,” said Majed, 28, a hotel worker from central Damascus. “What would happen to our beautiful Old City? It is mental torture.”
The 20-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades, is now finally threatening the seat of power. Residents describe a foreboding and anxiety overtaking Damascus.
Rush hour now starts around 3 p.m., well before dusk.
Syrian rebels battled forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad just outside Damascus on Thursday, forcing the closure of the main airport road, and the Dubai-based Emirates airline suspended flights to the Syrian capital.
Residents also reported Internet connections in the capital were down and mobile and land telephone lines working only sporadically in what appeared to be the worst disruption to communications in Syria since an uprising began 20 months ago.
The past two weeks have seen rebels overrunning army bases across Syria, exposing Assad’s loss of control in northern and eastern regions despite the devastating air power that he has used to bombard opposition strongholds.
FLASH: U.N. Chief condemns apparent massacre in Syria
U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon says he’s shocked by reports of a massacre in Syria’s Daraya and condemns the event as an “appalling and brutal crime.” Ban has called for an immediate independent investigation into reports of hundreds killed in Daraya.
Syria’s defense minister and President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law were killed in a Damascus suicide bomb attack carried out by a bodyguard on Wednesday, the most serious blow to Assad’s high command in the country’s 16-month-old rebellion.
The bomber, said by a security source to be a bodyguard assigned to Assad’s inner circle, struck a meeting attended by ministers and senior security officials as battles raged within sight of the presidential palace.
State television said Defence Minister Daoud Rajha and Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, the deputy defence minister, had been killed in a “terrorist bombing” and pledged to wipe out “criminal gangs”.
A Syrian security source confirmed Shawkat, 62, - a pillar of Assad’s rule - was killed and said intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar was wounded. State television said Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar had also been wounded in the blast.
The United States announced on Monday it was closing its embassy in Syria due to the worsening security situation, further isolating Damascus over its bloody crackdown on anti-government protests.
The State Department, which warned late last month that it would close the embassy unless security concerns were addressed, said it had suspended embassy operations and withdrawn all embassy personnel including Ambassador Robert Ford.
“We, along with several other diplomatic missions, conveyed our security concerns to the Syrian government but the regime failed to respond adequately,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
Read more: U.S. closes embassy in Syria due to violence