16 die in Damascus bomb blast as Assad’s grip on power wanes

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Sixteen people were killed in a bomb blast near a school in Damascus, with at least half the dead reported to be women and children.

The Sana news agency said yesterday a car packed with explosives blew up in a residential part of Qatana suburb, south-west of the capital.

The report quoted medics from a nearby hospital as saying that 16 people were killed, including seven children and “a number” of women. Nearly two dozen other people were injured.

Anti-regime activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime in March 2011.

The blast is the latest in a string of similar bombings in and around Damascus that the government says have killed at least 25 people in the past two days.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the bombings, some have targeted government buildings and killed officials, suggesting rebels who can not engage Assad’s forces directly in Damascus are resorting to other means.

Similar attacks hit four places in and around Damascus on Wednesday. Three bombs collapsed walls of the interior ministry building, killing at least five people. One of the dead was Syrian parliament member Abdullah Qairouz, Sana reported.

Other explosions hit near the Palace of Justice, in the suburb of Jermana and in the upscale Mezzeh 86 district, heavily populated by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect. One of the three killed in that that bombing was a state TV journalist named Anmar Mohammed, Sana said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the number of those killed in the interior ministry bombing had risen to nine.

The Observatory, which is based in Britain and relies on contacts inside Syria, also reported clashes between rebels and regime forces in a number of areas south of the city as well as government airstrikes on suburbs to the city’s east and south.

The bombings came as Syria’s most powerful ally, Russia, said for the first time that President Bashar Assad is losing control of his country and the rebels might win the civil war. The comments dramatically shift the diplomatic landscape at a time of enormous momentum for the opposition.

While deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov did not issue any immediate signal that Russia could change its stance and stop blocking international sanctions on Assad’s regime, his remarks will likely be seen as a betrayal in Damascus and could persuade many Syrians to abandon support for the government.

It could also further strengthen the hand of the rebels, who have made some significant gains in their offensive recently, capturing two major military bases and mounting a serious challenge to Assad’s seat of power, Damascus.

“We must look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory,” said Mr Bogdanov during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body, the Public Chamber.

He added: “An opposition victory can’t be excluded.”

Mr Bogdanov’s statement marks a clear attempt by the Kremlin to begin positioning itself for Assad’s eventual defeat. He said that Russia is prepared to evacuate thousands of its citizens from Syria.

At the same time, Mr Bogdanov reaffirmed Russia’s call for a compromise, saying it would take the opposition a long time to defeat the regime and Syria would suffer heavy casualties.

“The fighting will become even more intense, and you will lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.

“If such a price for the ousting of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable.”