By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT (Reuters) - A car bomb killed more than 50 people and wounded 200 in central Damascus on Thursday when it blew up on a busy highway close to ruling Baath Party offices and the Russian Embassy, state media and activists said.
Syrian television showed charred and bloodied bodies strewn across the street after the blast, which it described as a suicide bombing by "terrorists" battling President Bashar al-Assad. It said 53 people were killed.
Central Damascus has been relatively insulated from almost two years of unrest and civil war in which around 70,000 people have been killed across the country, but the bloodshed has shattered suburbs around the capital.
Rebels who control districts to the south and east of Damascus have attacked Assad's power base for nearly a month and struck with devastating bombs over the last year.
The al Qaeda-linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which claimed responsibility for several of those bombs, says it carried out 17 attacks around Damascus in the first half of February, including at least seven bombings.
Activists said most of the victims of Thursday's attack in the city's Mazraa district were civilians, including children, possibly from a school behind the Baath building.
Opposition activists reported further explosions elsewhere in the city after the explosion which struck shortly before 11 a.m. (0900 GMT).
One resident in the heart of the capital heard three or four projectiles whistling through the sky, followed by explosions. At least one of them landed in a public garden in the Abu Rummaneh district, she said, but no one was hurt.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence via a network of sources inside Syria, said the Mazraa car bomb was detonated at a checkpoint close to the Baath Party building, located about 200 meters (660 feet) from the Russian embassy.
It said 56 people were killed, of which at least 15 were from Syria's security forces and the rest civilians. Eight other people were killed by a car bomb in the Barzeh district of northeast Damascus, one of several explosions which followed the Mazraa attack.
Russia's Itar-Tass news agency quoted a diplomat as saying the Mazraa blast blew out windows at the Russian Embassy, but no employees were wounded. "The building has really been damaged ... The windows are shattered," the diplomat said.
The vehicle was carrying between 1 and 1.5 metric tons (1.65 tons) of explosives, Damascus Governor Bishr Sabban told Reuters.
A correspondent for Syrian television said he saw seven body bags with corpses at the scene. He counted 17 burnt-out cars and another 40 that were destroyed or badly damaged by the force of the blast, which ripped a crater 1.5 meters deep into the road.
Syrian TV said security forces had detained a would-be suicide bomber with five bombs in his car, one of them weighing 300 kg (440 pounds).
In the southern city of Deraa, where the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011, warplanes bombed the city's old district for the first time in nearly two years of conflict, killing 18 people, activists said.
A rebel officer in the Tawheed al-Janoub brigade which led a rebel offensive this week in Deraa said there were at least five air strikes on the city on Thursday.
"The (rebel) attacks on several major checkpoints in the Hay al-Saad neighborhood and its declaration as a liberated area have prompted this response," said Abdullah Masalmah, an activist from the city, via Skype.
Fighting has intensified in southern Syria in recent weeks, leading to a sharp increase in refugee flows to neighboring Jordan, according to officials. A Jordanian military source said 4,288 refugees arrived in the last 24 hours alone.
Nayef Hawatmeh, head of the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was lightly wounded by an explosion in a mosque next to his office, a DFLP official said.
Talal Abu Tharifa told Reuters in Gaza that glass fragments had caused a slight wound to Hawatmeh's hand.
(Additional reporting by Marwan Makdesi in Damascus, Laila Bassam and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow; Editing by Andrew Roche)