Twin blasts targeting Syria's army command headquarters rocked the capital on Wednesday, setting off hours of sporadic gun-battles and a raging fire inside the heavily guarded compound, state-run media and witnesses said.
An army statement said no military commanders or personnel were hurt in the explosions, one of which was from a car bomb. But Iranian Press TV said one of its correspondents, 33-year-old Maya Nasser, a Syrian national, died in an exchange of fire in the area following the blasts.
The explosions were the latest to hit the Syrian capital as the country's civil war intensified and appeared to show the deep reach of the rebels determined to topple President Bashar Assad's regime.
Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, said the explosions struck just before 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) near the landmark Omayyad Square. They were heard several miles (kilometers) away and shattered the windows of the Dama Rose hotel and other nearby buildings.
Rebels from the Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the bombings in a statement signed by the group's military council, saying dozens were killed in the attack.
The army command building was in flames, sending huge columns of thick black smoke that hung over Damascus for several hours following the blasts. The blasts caused fear among residents of a nearby upscale district, which has largely been sheltered from the violence that plagues other parts of the city.
"What if a random bullet killed one of my kids?" Nada, a 42-year-old mother of three who only gave her first name out of security concerns, said, crying over the telephone. The windows of her apartment were shattered and her furniture was damaged. "I only care about my children and I'm afraid of the gunfire," she added.
Gaith, 63, a retired civil servant, said he rushed to lock the gate of his building to keep rebels from hiding in it. "I don't want my place to collapse on my head," he said.
Witnesses said the explosions were followed by heavy gunfire that stretched on for hours at the Omayyad Square and around the military compound. One witness who managed to get close to the area, which was cordoned off, saw panicked soldiers shooting in the air randomly as they ran.
The witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said it appears that rebels may have been holed up inside the army command building, from where the sound of gunfire could clearly be heard.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said heavy clashes were taking place inside the compound of the army command, adding that there were casualties on both sides.
The force of the explosion left a good part of the compound overlooking the huge Omayyad square charred. Air conditioners and door frames were blown from their place and dangled outside the building. A group of army soldiers standing outside the buildings shouted pro Assad slogans, including: "Shabiha, forever, for your eyes, Oh Assad!" in reference to pro-regime militiamen.
The army statement said the blasts were caused by a car bomb and an explosive device that went off near the army command buildings. It said "terrorists" in the area simultaneously opened fire randomly to terrorize people, adding that authorities were pursuing the gunmen. Syrian authorities regularly refer to rebels fighting to topple Assad's regime as terrorists.
Syria's unrest began in March 2011 when protests calling for political change met a violent government crackdown. Many in the opposition have since taken up arms as the conflict morphed into a civil war that activists say has killed nearly 30,000 people. Over the past few months, the rebels have increasingly targeted security sites and symbols of regime power in a bid to turn the tide in the fighting.
On July 18, rebels penetrated the heart of Syria's power elite, detonating a bomb inside a high-level crisis meeting in Damascus that killed three top regime officials, including Assad's brother-in-law and the defense minister. Other large blasts have targeted the headquarters of security agencies in the capital, killing scores of people this year.
On Tuesday, several bombs went off inside a Damascus school that activists said was being used by regime forces as a security headquarters. Several people were wounded. Syria's conflict was the focus of attention as world leaders gathered at the U.N. General Assembly's annual meeting in New York this week.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded international action to stop the war in Syria, telling a somber gathering of world leaders Tuesday that the 18-month conflict had become "a regional calamity with global ramifications."
Ban, declaring that the situation in Syria is getting worse every day, called the conflict a serious and growing threat to international peace and security that requires attention from the deeply divided U.N. Security Council. That appears highly unlikely, however, at least in the near future.
Russia and China have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to end the violence and enter negotiations on a political transition, leaving the U.N.'s most powerful body paralyzed in what some diplomats say is the worst crisis since the U.S.-Soviet standoff during the Cold War.
In sharp contrast to the U.N. chief, President Barack Obama pledged U.S. support for Syrians trying to oust Assad — "a dictator who massacres his own people."