BEIRUT -- As diplomats haggled about the prospect of Syrian peace talks, dozens were killed and many others injured Sunday when a massive car bomb exploded outside the central Syrian city of Hama.
Sunday's blast was the latest in a series of bombings and fierce clashes that have continued to ravage Syria as U.S., Russian and other officials try to bring both sides to negotiations in Geneva to help end the conflict, now in its third year. But the prospects for peace appear dim.
A suicide driver detonated the car bomb Sunday on an eastern approach to Hama, according to opposition and official accounts. The resulting explosion engulfed nearby vehicles, including a truck filled with gas canisters that also burst into flames, causing additional casualties and damage, according to the official news agency.
At least 37 people were killed and dozens injured in the blast, according to the state news agency. The car bomb carried some 1.5 tons of explosives, the news agency reported.
Suicide car bombs have become a favorite weapon of rebels seeking to oust the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. A day earlier, a car bomb exploded at a checkpoint outside the government-controlled Damascus suburb of Jaramana, leaving many dead and injured. Fierce clashes followed the attack.
The attack in Hama was the work of the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra rebel faction, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group. Militant Islamist groups, some tied to al-Qaida, have become powerful components of the Syrian rebel movement. Al-Qaida factions in Syria have clashed with other rebel groups and with Kurdish militiamen seeking autonomy in northeast Syria.
The observatory put the number of dead in Sunday's attack in Hama at 43, more than reported by the government. Thirty-two were civilians; the rest were members of the security forces. The bomb was detonated at a government checkpoint, the group said. Military checkpoints are frequent targets for rebel attacks.
The provincial capital of Hama, situated about 120 miles north of Damascus, had been the site of fierce fighting in the first year of the civil war, but is now largely under government control. However, opposition forces are active outside the city, which has considerable symbolic importance in the conflict.
Hama is notorious as the site of a brutal 1980s government crackdown on the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood during the presidency of the late Hafez Assad, father of the current president, Bashar Assad. In various interviews, Bashar Assad has likened the Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising of a generation ago to the threat posed today by "terrorists," as he labels opponents seeking to overthrow his family's more than four-decade rule.
With no end in sight for the Syrian conflict, international diplomats in recent weeks have renewed a push for the long-delayed "Geneva II" conference. The talks would be aimed at forming a transitional government for Syria and finding a negotiated settlement to end the war.
On Sunday, the head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, told reporters in Cairo that the Geneva II talks would be held on Nov. 23 in the Swiss city. The Arab League chief acknowledged "many difficulties," The Associated Press reported, but said "it's time that the killing and the bloodshed stopped."
But Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League special peace envoy for Syria who appeared with the Arab League chief in Cairo, denied that any date had been finalized. Mr. Brahimi is on a swing through the region and plans to meet with, among others, representatives of Turkey and Qatar, two major backers of Syrian rebel forces.
Confusion has been rampant about if and when the talks will take place.
Last week, Qadri Jamil, deputy Syrian prime minister, told reporters in Moscow that Geneva II would be held on Nov. 23-24. But the U.S., Russia and the United Nations responded that no firm date had yet been set.
Apart from the date, it is unclear how the planned talks will proceed, and who would represent the opposition.
First Published October 20, 2013 8:00 PM