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Car bomb explodes in Damascus, Syria

A car bomb exploded in the main business district of Damascus on Monday, killing at least 15 people, setting cars ablaze and damaging buildings, according to state television. A Damascus resident who described the blast as the biggest she had heard in the capital during the two-year-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad said large plumes of black smoke were rising from the Sabaa Bahrat district. State television said the explosion occurred near a school in Sabaa Bahrat, a heavily populated area that also houses the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry. Residents and opposition activists reported hearing gunfire and ambulance sirens in the vicinity. State television said shots were fired in the air to clear a path for ambulances. It showed footage of seven bodies in the street, including at least two charred corpses in the wreckage of an overturned bus. The fire brigade was dousing flames from cars crushed by the blast. Other vehicles were still on fire, lined up in what appeared to be a car park.
 
Men carried away a woman with her face covered in blood on a stretcher. Panic-stricken women in long black dresses and head scarves ran towards the scene. State television showed some bandaged children in school uniform.
 
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group with a network of local sources, including hospitals, said at least 15 people had been killed.
 
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but state media blamed "terrorists," a term the government uses for opposition fighters.
 
Syrian insurgents based in the outskirts of Damascus have pushed into areas near the government-held heart of the city, stepping up mortar and car bomb attacks in recent weeks.
 
Ban: all Syria chemical arms claims must be probed
 
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said all serious claims regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria should be examined, after meeting the head of the global chemical weapons monitoring body in The Hague on Monday.
 
Ban and Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), discussed details of a mission to investigate alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, the scope of which has become a source of tension between Russia and Western powers seeking to broaden the probe.
 
They were due to address how and when a team of up to 15 inspectors can gain access to Syria, where both rebels and government forces have accused each other of using chemical munitions.
 
"The use of chemical weapons by any side, under any circumstances, would constitute an outrageous crime with dire consequences and constitute a crime against humanity," Ban told delegates to a chemical weapons conference.
 
Ban said an advance team of inspectors was in Cyprus, ready to deploy within 24 hours once the Syrian government gave its go-ahead for access to all relevant sites are ready to be deployed.
 
Russia, which has used its veto-wielding seat on the U.N. Security Council to counter Western pressure on its ally Syria, wants the probe to focus solely on Syrian government allegations that rebels used chemical arms near Aleppo.
 
But France and Britain additionally want two rebel claims of use by government forces in Homs and Damascus to be investigated. The Syrian opposition says President Bashar al-Assad's government carried out all three alleged attacks.
 
More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict which started with peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule that were violently suppressed. An armed struggle ensued, forcing more than a million Syrians to flee abroad, and displacing millions more inside the country.

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