BEIRUT (AP) — A bomb that apparently targeted a restaurant in the Syrian capital killed at least five people, the state-run news agency said Tuesday, as activists reported intense clashes between army defectors and soldiers in the restive north.
SANA, the country's main media outlet, released photographs of the bombing scene that appeared to show a heavily damaged restaurant. The agency said the blast went off late Monday in the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, which has seen frequent anti-government protests.
The revolt in Syria began 15 months ago, and there are fears that extremist groups could be trying to enter the fray and exploit the chaos. The U.N. estimates the conflict has killed more than 9,000 people since March last year.
The conflict already has spilled across the border into neighboring Lebanon. The countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which can turn violent.
The killing of an anti-Syrian Sunni cleric in Lebanon on Sunday unleashed the most serious outbreak of violence in Beirut since the Syrian uprising began. Lebanese Sunni groups supporting and opposing the Damascus regime fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns early Monday, killing at least two people.
Sheik Ahmed Abdul-Wahid and his bodyguard were gunned down Sunday by a Lebanese soldier, apparently after the men failed to stop at an army checkpoint. The killing fueled deep anger over the perceived support of some of Lebanon's security forces for the Syrian regime.
In what could reduce the tension in Lebanon, a Lebanese military prosecutor ordered the release Tuesday of Shadi Mawlawi, an outspoken Lebanese critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Mawlawi's arrest earlier this month sparked clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian groups in the northern city of Tripoli that killed eight people. Judicial officials said Mawlawi was released on about $333 bail and will not be allowed to leave the country.
Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights reported intense clashes Tuesday in Syria between troops and defectors in the towns of Atareb and Kfar Rouma.
There was no immediate word on casualties.
The U.N. has an observer mission in the country with about 270 unarmed monitors, but the monitors' presence has not stopped the violence although it has dropped compared to previous months.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous toured the central city of Homs, the flashpoint of the uprising, on Monday and met U.N. observers in the city as well as the governor.
"The first goal is to obtain a reduction in the level of violence and this you have clearly done here in Homs," Ladsous said in a statement released Tuesday. "Now there is a need to establish bridges to help solve the practical functions of everyday life and gradually establish degree of confidence between the government and opposition."