BEIRUT--Syrian officials said the death toll from a blast in Damascus, the capital, early Thursday has increased to at least 53 people and that at least 235 were injured.
The midmorning explosion was probably a massive car bomb that detonated on busy Al Thawra Street in the Al Mazraa district in central Damascus, causing bloody mayhem in the heart of the city, according to news reports.
The victims were mostly pedestrians, schoolchildren and motorists, the state media said. The blast also damaged nearby Al Hayat Hospital and Abdullah Bin al-Zubir school, the official news agency reported.
The attack occurred near an office of the ruling Baath Party and not far from the Russian Embassy, which suffered broken windows. It was not clear if either site was the target.
Reports indicated that the car bomb detonated at a checkpoint, one of many now ubiquitous in the militarized capital. It came as rebels have stepped up attacks on the capital, the heavily guarded bastion of the government of President Bashar Assad.
Early reports by the official Syrian news agency and other news agencies had indicated that at least 16 to 35 people had been killed. The government later increased the death toll to at least 53.
After the explosion, there were reports of shells fired into the center of the capital, possibly aimed at military headquarters near Umayyad Square. Residents abandoned the streets, and some took cover in basements. The government appeared to respond with artillery from positions on Mt. Qassion, which overlooks the capital.
Residents interviewed by state media roundly condemned the attack and blamed it on the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella opposition group. But the opposition denied any part in the attack.
Video broadcast on Syrian television showed hellish scenes of the bombing's aftermath.
Charred and burning vehicles were arrayed along a street strewn with mangled and burned bodies and body parts. Firefighters sought to douse lingering blazes, and rescue workers with stretchers struggled to evacuate the injured.
Several dazed survivors sat stunned along the roadside as fires raged in vehicles nearby. One man tried to revive a wounded person lying face-up on the road; another man seemed to be trying to crawl toward safety.
It was among the most lethal attacks in Damascus since the rebellion began in March 2011. Last May, a pair of suicide car bomb attacks outside a military intelligence complex in the capital killed 55 and wounded more than 300.
The explosion Thursday shattered windows and caused other material damage at the Russian Embassy but did not cause any injuries, said Timur Pechatkin, the embassy spokesman.
“No one in the embassy was harmed and we continue to function normally under the circumstances,” Pechatkin said in a phone interview. “This is the first time a terrorist act was staged so close to the embassy.”
Yelena Gromova, a Damascus-based correspondent for the Russian daily Sovietskaya Rossiya, said people seemed worried but not panicked by the violence.
“They have grown used to living next to terrorist acts already,” Gromova said in a phone interview. “With every new terrorist act people more and more begin to hate the opposition especially when their loved ones die in front of their eyes.”
A special correspondent in Damascus and Times Staff Writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.