Armed Islamic militants attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy in a bold attack Tuesday using automatic rifles, hand grenades and at least one van rigged with explosives, the government said. Syrian security forces killed three of the attackers and no Americans were hurt.
The attackers apparently did not breach the high walls surrounding the white embassy compound in a diplomatic neighborhood of Damascus. But one of Syria's anti-terrorism forces was killed in the attack and at least 11 others were injured including a local embassy police officer, two Iraqis and seven workers at a nearby technical workshop, Syria's official news agency reported.
Chinese officials say one of their diplomats was slightly injured by a stray bullet as he watched from the rooftop of his own embassy, reports CBS News correspondent Richard Roth.
At the embassy in Damascus, as at most American embassies worldwide, a local guard force patrols outside the compound's walls while U.S. Marine guards are mostly responsible for guarding classified documents and fighting off attackers inside the compound.
Witnesses also said the gunmen shouted "Allah Akbar," or "God is great," as they tried to throw hand grenades over the embassy compound's walls. It was not clear if any of the grenades made it over the walls, which are about 8 feet high.
The attack came at a time of high tension between the United States and Syria over the recent Israeli-Hezbollah war in neighboring Lebanon, and a time of high anti-American sentiment in Damascus. Just Monday al Qaeda's second-in-command issued a warning of attacks in Israel, and against U.S. interests elsewhere in the Middle East, reports Roth.
"It does have the hallmark of an al Qaeda-type of attack, if we look at the fact that it seemed to be a vehicle, a bomb, with people inside, showing that it would be a suicide attack," Sajjan Gohel, terrorism analyst at the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London, told CBS Radio News.
"We know that the Syrian regime has allowed insurgents to cross back and forth to attack coalition troops. It also has harbored a lot of Hezbollah members in the past. We can't rule out the possibility that Hezbollah has played a role in this," Gohel said.
Syria has seen previous attacks by Islamic militants. In June, Syrian anti-terrorism police fought Islamic militants near the Defense Ministry in a gun battle that killed five people and wounded four.
After the attack, pools of blood lay splattered on the sidewalk outside the embassy, along with a burned car apparently used by the attackers. A sports utility vehicle with U.S. diplomatic tags had a bullet hole through its front window, and the glass windows of nearby guard houses also were shattered.
"It is a very rich neighborhood where most of the European embassies are situated," reporter George Baghdadi told CBS Radio News.
There were conflicting reports of what happened.
Syrian TV said one car was rigged with explosives but never was detonated by the attackers. But one witness said a second car did explode, and TV footage from the scene showed a burned car.
The Syrian Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, said a fourth attacker was wounded in the incident, which it called a "terrorist attack." The report, carried on state-run television, said anti-terror units brought "the situation under control" and an investigation was under way.
State television said four armed attackers "attempted to storm" the embassy, using automatic rifles and hand grenades. Syrian security guards attacked the gunmen, killing three and wounding a fourth, TV said.
The attackers came in two cars, parked one that was rigged with explosives in front of the embassy but did not blow it up, state-run TV reported. Explosive experts dismantled the bomb, it said.
But a witness told The Associated Press that two gunmen stopped a car on the street in front of the embassy, got out of the car, shot at the Syrian sentries in front of the building's entrance and then detonated the car.
The witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the security personnel shot back, and security forces in the area quickly rushed to the scene.
Television footage showed a delivery van loaded with pipe bombs strapped to large propane gas canisters outside the embassy. Had the bombs detonated, the explosions would have caused massive damage.
The footage also showed the charred remains of a smaller car parked several yards behind the van.
A Syrian who works at the American Embassy, contacted by The Associated Press by telephone, said there were no U.S. casualties. The employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the incident started just after 10 a.m.
Damascus has been hit by militant attacks in the past. In April 2004, four people were killed in a clash between Syrian police and a team of suspected bombers in the diplomatic quarter of Damascus.
The authorities at that time accused Islamic militants of trying blow up an explosives-laden car near the Canadian embassy.