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. 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 to 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 big 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.
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.
The last large explosion in central Damascus took place March 21, when a suicide bomber at a mosque killed 42 people. 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. Antiregime 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 those bombings.
Chemical weapons: 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.