DAMASCUS / BEIRUT: Car bombs in government-held districts of central Syria killed at least 17 people and wounded many others Thursday, state media and a government official reported, as fierce fighting raged around the rebel stronghold of Yabroud.
A government official in Homs province said 13 civilians were killed in a car bomb explosion at a busy roundabout in a residential district known as the Armenian quarter in the city of Homs. The official said more than 30 others were wounded in the explosion that targeted the area, inhabited mostly by Alawites and Christians.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.
Syrian TV showed footage of the blast, including burning cars, two bodies covered with sheets and fire engines struggling to extinguish a huge blaze in the area.
Earlier, the state-run news agency SANA said an explosives-laden car was detonated remotely in an area on the southern edge of Hama, killing at least four people and wounding 22.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which documents the fighting in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said the blast went off near a security headquarters in Hama, killing five people and wounding more than 20.
The reports did not say who was behind the blasts and there was no immediate claim of responsibility.
The Observatory put the death toll at the Homs explosion at 15.
Extremist groups, particularly those linked to Al-Qaeda, frequently have targeted government institutions and Syrian troops with car bombs and suicide attacks.
South of Homs, regime forces continued to shell the town of Yabroud and surrounding areas as part of a campaign in the Qalamoun region to cut off rebel supply lines stretching toward the border with Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television said government forces killed an unspecified number of rebels as they took control over the Rima Farms area near Yabroud, while “many others” fled the battlefield.
The Observatory said that at least seven Islamist rebels were killed in the clashes, which saw the regime side advance in two hilltop areas overlooking the town.
The pro-opposition Qalamoun Media Center said rebel fighters killed a total of 15 government troops and members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is playing a leading role in the Qalamoun offensive.
The center added that Yabroud was targeted by six air raids and three crude “barrel bombs,” dropped by helicopter.
Meanwhile, negotiators have lost contact with a group of nuns kidnapped last year after their captors moved them to Yabroud, a source told AFP.The 13 nuns and lay helpers were kidnapped from the nearby village of Maaloula last year.
“I was in regular contact with them, but since yesterday we’ve lost contact,” a source involved in negotiations said.
“It is very likely that they have been transferred to the region between Yabroud and the Lebanese border” nearby, the source said.
“Contacts are underway to try to ensure their safety.”
The source said the kidnappers were from a group belonging to the Al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front led by a man called Abu Malek al-Kuwaiti.
She said they had presented negotiators with a list of demands including the release of all women held in government prisons and the withdrawal of regime forces from Christian religious sites.
The kidnappers also asked for the provision of food to residents of rebel-held areas in the region and “military demands to do with the battle of Yabroud,” the source said.“Things that are difficult to achieve.”
The nuns, from both Syria and Lebanon, were kidnapped from a convent in Maaloula in December, as regime and rebel forces battled for control in the surrounding Qalamoun region.
In eastern Syria, a crew from Al-Manar accompanied soldiers after they seized a village near the city of Deir al-Zor’s military airport, where fighting has been raging intermittently between government troops and rebels.
A second straight day of government airstrikes and barrel bombs targeted Aleppo, according to local activists, who posted video footage of the destruction in several neighborhoods.
An activist group said that at least five people were killed when two missiles struck the Sheikh Khodr neighborhood. A total of 14 barrel bombs and four airstrikes targeted the city, the activists said, while shelling also targeted regime-held areas of Aleppo.
The Observatory reported that regime forces advanced in the village of Zara, near the border with Lebanon in Homs province. At least one rebel fighter was killed by a government airstrike on the village, while regime aircraft also targeted the nearby village of Al-Hosn and the Krak de Chevaliers castle, it said.
The Observatory said a rare mortar bomb targeted central Damascus. It said at least one person was killed and a number wounded near the Saudi Embassy in the neighborhood of Abu Rummaneh.