AMMAN (Reuters) - At least 10 people were killed and dozens wounded when a car bomb exploded in the Syrian city of Latakia on Wednesday, state television said, in a rare attack in a coastal stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad.
Latakia has so far been largely spared the violence that has ravaged Syria during more than four years of civil war in which about a quarter of a million people have been killed.
In recent months, rebel attacks on government-held neighborhoods in the capital Damascus and in Aleppo city have risen, with dozens of civilians killed or wounded.
The army has also stepped up air strikes on rebel-held towns and villages in northwestern Syria and the suburbs of Damascus that have killed hundreds of civilians in the last two months of intensified fighting on major fronts across the country.
On Wednesday Syrian air force strikes killed at least 14 people east of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said. The strikes hit Douma, Ghouta and Saqba and follow deadly strikes in the area in recent days.
In Latakia, the car bomb targeted a main square, state television said. There was no claim of responsibility for the bombing, which state media said was carried out by “terrorists”, a term it uses to describe insurgents fighting to topple Assad.
Video footage showed wrecked and burning vehicles, with
rescue workers and civilians fighting the fires.
The governor of Latakia, Ibrahim Khader al Salem, told pro-government television channels that insurgents sought to strike at the heart of government-held safe areas that had become a refuge for tens of thousands of displaced families in an attempt to sow “destruction and fear”.
State media said a white van filled with at least half a ton of explosives was parked near a school and had created a huge crater in the square that lies at a crossroad inside the port city.
At least two explosive-laden cars had been discovered in recent days in the city in foiled attempts to blow up heavily populated areas, it said.
While Latakia has been spared, the surrounding province of the same name - home to Syria’s biggest port and a stronghold of Assad’s Alawite sect - has been a major battleground in the war.
Sunni Muslim fighters, including al Qaeda’s Syrian offshoot the Nusra Front, control many villages in the borderlands north of the Mediterranean port city and other areas dominated by Alawites, who follow an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
The army had stepped up its campaign in the province since insurgents took the strategically located town of Jisr al Shughour in April, strengthening their position in a mountain range that overlooks Alawite villages and is close to Qardaha, the hometown of the Assad family.
Separately, a mortar attack on part of the campus of Damascus University killed at least two students and wounded several, state media said. In a third attack, heavy shelling killed three civilians and wounded 45 in Jaramana city, east of Damascus.
The war has taken on a starkly sectarian character, with the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels backed by Sunni Gulf Arab powers fighting to overthrow Assad who is backed by Shi’ite Iran.
Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall, Editing by Louise Ireland and Angus MacSwan