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Suicide bombing in Damascus' financial center kills 15

DAMASCUS, Syria -- A suicide car bomber struck yesterday in the financial heart of Syria's capital, killing at least 15 people, damaging the nearby central bank and incinerating cars and trees in the neighborhood.

It was the latest in a recent series of bombings to hit Damascus in the civil war, slowly closing in on President Bashar Assad's base of power in the capital. Rebel fighters have chipped away at the regime's hold in northern and eastern Syria, as well as made significant gains in the south, helped in part by an influx of foreign-supplied weapons.

The blast adjacent Sabaa Bahrat Square -- near the state-run Syrian Investment Agency, the Syrian Central Bank and the Finance Ministry -- dealt a symbolic blow to the nation's ailing economy.

In the early days of the 2-year-old uprising, the grandiose roundabout was home to huge pro-regime demonstrations with a gigantic poster of Assad hung over the central bank headquarters.

The area was a very different scene yesterday. State TV showed several cars on fire and thick black smoke billowing above the tree-lined street. At least six bodies were sprawled on the pavement.

Paramedics carried a young woman on a stretcher, her face bloodied and her white shirt stained red. A man placed a T-shirt over a victim whose face was blown off.

Firefighters struggled to extinguish flames that engulfed the two buildings as well as a row of cars near the roundabout. State media put the toll at 15 dead and 146 wounded.

Witnesses said the suicide attacker tried to ram the vehicle into the investment agency but was stopped by guards, forcing the bomber to detonate the explosives at the gate.

Visiting a mosque across the street that was damaged in the blast, Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi described the attack as "the work of cowards" and vowed the army would crush all armed groups fighting the government. Shattered glass and torn curtains littered the mosque's red carpet.

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