By Albert Aji and Ryan Lucas Associated Press
DAMASCUS, Syria — A suicide car bomber struck Monday 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.
The attack 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 making significant gains in the south, helped in part by an influx of foreign-funded weapons.
The blast was adjacent Sabaa Bahrat Square — near the state-run Syrian Investment Agency, the Syrian Central Bank and the Finance Ministry — and 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 Monday.
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.
Some people wandering through the twisted metal, body parts and rubble on the street and directed their anger at countries supporting the rebellion.
“I want to say to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that the Syrian people stand firm behind their leadership, and they are steadfast and will never kneel down, and we will emerge victorious,” said engineer Saeed Halabi, 54, calling the attack a “terrorist and cowardly act.”
The U.N. estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war.
The Syrian regime denies there is a popular uprising and refers to the rebels as “terrorists” and “mercenaries,” allegedly backed by foreign powers trying to destabilize the country.
The last large explosion in central Damascus took place March 21, when a suicide bomber at a mosque killed 42 people, including a top Sunni Muslim preacher who was an outspoken supporter of Assad.
A month earlier, a suicide car bombing near the ruling Baath Party headquarters — just blocks away from Monday’s attack — killed 53, according to state media. Anti-regime activists put the death toll from that bombing at 61, which would make it the deadliest in the conflict.
There was no claim of responsibility for any of those bombings.
In the past, the Islamic militant group Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for some of the suicide bombings targeting regime and military facilities. The U.S. says the group, which is one of the most effective rebel factions fighting Assad’s forces, is linked to al-Qaida and has designated it a terrorist organization.
The bombings, along with now near-daily mortar attacks in the capital, have punctured the sense of normalcy that the regime has tried to cultivate in Damascus. Until recently, the city was largely insulated from the bloodshed and destruction in other urban centers.
The rebels launched an offensive on Damascus in July but were swept out in a punishing counteroffensive. Since then, government warplanes have pounded opposition strongholds on the outskirts, and rebels have managed only small incursions on the city’s southern and eastern sides.
The recently elected prime minister of the main Western-backed Syrian opposition bloc, Ghassan Hitto, visited the northern province of Idlib, the Syrian National Coalition said on its Facebook page. The coalition posted photos of Hitto, dressed in a gray suit, meeting with rebel fighters. It was his second trip to Syria since he was selected last month to lead the opposition’s interim government, which the U.S. and its allies hope will emerge as the united face of those fighting to topple Assad.
Also on Monday, the Syrian government rejected a request by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to allow international inspectors to have access to the whole country to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in the civil war.
The government is willing to allow the inspectors only into the village of Khan al-Assal in northern Syria, where an attack was alleged to have taken place on March 19.
Both the rebels and the regime have traded blame for the alleged attack, which has not been confirmed.
Speaking in the Netherlands, Ban said an advance team of inspectors is waiting in Cyprus, ready to move into Syria immediately to investigate the reported use of chemical weapons.
All reports of chemical attacks “should be examined without delay, without conditions and without exceptions,” Ban said. “The longer we wait, the harder this essential mission will be.”
His comments appeared aimed at increasing the pressure on Assad’s regime and ensuring that U.N. inspectors are given access to all sites of reported chemical weapons attacks — not just those the Syrian government wants them to see.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry swiftly rejected the proposal, saying it would constitute “a violation of Syrian sovereignty.”
“The secretary-general, while in The Hague, asked for additional tasks that would allow the team to deploy across all of Syrian territory, which goes against what Syria had asked from the U.N. and shows bad intentions,” the ministry said in statement. “Syria cannot accept such maneuvers from the secretary-general of the U.N, taking into consideration the negative role played in Iraq which paved the way for the American invasion.”
It added, however, that Syria is ready to grant inspectors access to Khan al-Assal.
Syria is widely believed to have a large stockpile of chemical weapons, but it is one of only eight countries in the world that has not signed up to the chemical weapons convention. That means it does not have to report any chemical weapons to The Hague-based organization that monitors compliance with the treaty.
Britain and France have followed up by asking Ban to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in two locations in Khan al-Assal and the village of Ataybah, in the vicinity of Damascus, all on March 19, as well as in Homs on Dec. 23.
The delay in getting to the scene will hamper investigators, said Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the United States.
“It is going to make it a bigger challenge. But it doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel,” Smithson said in a telephone interview.
Investigators will likely go after two key sources of evidence — samples from the environment and from any possible victims or survivors of suspected chemical attacks.
“When the environment has changed, that makes it that much more challenging to get a clean environmental sample,” Smithson said.
Lucas reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam, Bassem Mroue and Barbara Surk in Beirut, and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.