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Thu, 14 Jun 2012 10:02 - Updated Thu, 14 Jun 2012 10:02

Car bomb explodes in Damascus suburb


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Syria - A car bomb exploded Thursday in a Damascus suburb that is home to a popular Shiite Muslim shrine, wounding at least two people, Syria's state-run news agency SANA reported, while activists said regime troops continued  shelling rebellious areas in central Homs province.

It was not immediately clear what the target of Thursday's blast in Sayyida Zainab was. SANA said the car bomb detonated in a parking lot near the Imam Sadr Hospital, causing substantial material damage.

Car bombs and suicide bombings have become common in Syria as the 15-month uprising against President Bashar Assad has become increasingly militarized with both sides of the conflict now using more powerful weapons.

Rebels reportedly clashed with government forces in several areas of the country Thursday and troops continued to pound rebel-controlled areas in the central province of Homs.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three civilians were killed overnight in clashes at the entrances of the Jouret el-Shayyah neighborhood in Homs city. Another died in the rebel-held town of Rastan north of  Homs, which has been under constant and intense fire from regime forces for days.

Syrian forces on Wednesday overran a mountain enclave near the Mediterranean coast, seizing the territory back from rebels after battles that raged for eight days.

State television said regime forces had "cleansed" Haffa of "armed terrorist groups" and the Foreign Ministry urged U.N. observers to immediately head there "to check what the terrorist groups have done."

U.N. observers did not go to Haffa on Wednesday and are assessing the situation to determine when they can successfully reach the town, U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer said.

On Tuesday, an angry crowd hurled rocks and sticks at the U.N. mission's vehicles, forcing them to turn back. None of the observers was hurt.

Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the observers, said they have been trying to reach Haffa since June 7.

With the bloodshed ramping up, France on Wednesday joined the U.N. peacekeeping chief in declaring Syria was in a state of civil war.

"When many groups belonging to the same people tear each other apart and kill each other, if you can't call it a civil war, then there are no words to describe it," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a news conference in Paris.

Syria's Foreign Ministry expressed "astonishment" over the claims Wednesday.

"Syria is not witnessing a civil war but rather an armed conflict to uproot terrorism and confront killings, kidnappings, bombings ... and other brutal acts," the ministry said.

Syrian authorities characterize rebels as terrorists and armed gangsters, and the uprising as a foreign plot to destabilize the country.

Activists say some 14,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.