Two powerful blasts in quick succession have killed dozens of people and injured more than 300 others in the Syrian capital Damascus, according to Syrian officials and state media.
One of Thursday's rush hour explosions hit the Qazaz neighbourhood that houses a well-known military intelligence headquarters involved in President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on a 14-month uprising.
The interior ministry said at least 55 people were killed and 372 wounded in the blasts.
"Two explosions caused by terrorists took place on the road in the south of Damascus," state TV reported, adding that the blasts occurred "as people were heading to work and children to school".
Both the government and the opposition blamed each other for the deadly explosions, but a retired Lebanese army major general, Hisham Jaber, said a third group may be involved.
"I am not accusing al-Qaeda, but everybody knows there are groups from al-Qaeda or similar or belong to it or they have the same objective and belief," he said.
"We do estimate the number of those groups, who came from Libya, Yemen, north Lebanon and Iraq, at about 800-1000. These are well-indoctrinated and well trained.
"They don’t belong to any groups of opposition in Syria. I am almost sure these kind of terrorist operations cannot be done by any classical opposition.
Washington condemned the attacks as "reprehensible" while UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who brokered the truce, described them as "abhorrent".
Russia and China, both supporters of Assad's embattled regime, called for a stop to the violence and urged all parties in Syria to co-operate with Annan's peace plan.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene said medical workers were collecting human remains from the streets and that heavily damaged cars and pickup trucks stood smoldering in the area after the explosions.
The outer wall of the nine-storey headquarters collapsed, although the structure inside appeared intact.
'Efficient and deadly'
Syrian TV showed dozens of mangled, burnt and smoldering vehicles, some containing incinerated human remains.
A large crater could be seen in the road and at least one lorry had been overturned.
One resident, who said he got within 100 metres of one of the blasts before being turned back by security forces, told Reuters news agency he saw broken glass on the street and women crying. Nearby schools had sent children home for the day.
Major General Robert Mood, chief of a UN observer mission in Syria, rushed to the site of the blasts shortly after they took place to survey the damage, an AFP correspondent reported.
"This is yet another example of the suffering brought upon the people of Syria from acts of violence," the Norwegian general said as he visited the site of one of the blasts.
"We, the world community, are here with the Syrian people and I call on everyone within and outside Syria to help stop this violence," he said.
The attacks came a day after the general Mood escaped unharmed when a roadside bomb exploded as he led a team of UN observers into the southern flash point city of Deraa.
Responding to the Deraa attack, UN leader Ban Ki-moon warned Syria's government and opposition that there was only a "brief window" to avoid full-scale civil war and indicated the future of the ceasefire monitoring mission was in doubt.
Highlighting an "alarming upsurge" of roadside bombs, alongside government attacks, Ban said both sides "must realise that we have a brief window to stop the violence, a brief opportunity to create an opening for political engagement between the government and those seeking change".
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that almost 12,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria since the revolt, inspired by Arab Spring uprisings, broke out in March last year.
About 800 of them have died since a UN-backed truce was supposed to have taken effect on April 12.
Damascus was hit by two blasts on May 6, with three soldiers wounded in one of the attacks. Television footage showed a mangled car destroyed by one of the explosions.
A deadly suicide bombing at Zein al-Abidin mosque in the capital's central Midan district on April 27 killed 11 people and wounded dozens, according to state media.
An armed group calling itself Al-Nusra Front had earlier claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide bombing on April 20 near the Syrian city of Hama that targeted a restaurant used by the security forces.
The Syrian authorities regularly blame the blasts on "terrorist groups" they say are behind the violence that has swept the country for the past 14 months.
The opposition accuses regime forces of being behind the bombings in an attempt to discredit protesters demanding an end to Assad's rule.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|