DAMASCUS, Syria — A powerful car bomb exploded near a school in a central province Thursday, killing at least 16 people and causing massive damage to a residential area, Syrian state media and an opposition watchdog said.
The explosion targeted the al-Kaffat village in Hama province, an area populated mostly by members of the country's minority Ismaili sect, a branch of Shiite Islam. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but radical Sunni extremists among the rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad's government frequently have targeted the country's religious minorities in the course of the civil war, now in its third year.
The conflict largely pits the mostly Sunni opposition against Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Syrian state television said Thursday's car bomb explosion in al-Kaffat village killed 16 people and caused extensive damage to cars and residences in the area. The Hama police command said there were women and children among the victims.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which keeps track of the fighting in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said 18 people were killed, most of them civilians. Such discrepancies are common in the chaos immediately after an attack.
The explosion occurred amid continuing infighting in northern Syria between rebel factions and an al-Qaida-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Iraqi-based group has alienated other factions by using brutal tactics to implement its strict interpretation of Islamic law including the kidnapping and killing of opponents.
A consortium of rebel groups began attacking the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Friday, and weeklong clashes have killed hundreds of people in what has become a war within the war in Syria.
On Wednesday, rebels successfully ousted the group from its local headquarters and bases in the key northern city of Aleppo. But activists said its fighters were regrouping and launching attacks from towns and villages around Aleppo.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and another al-Qaida linked group known as Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, initially joined forces with moderate rebels fighting to oust Assad in a conflict that began in March 2011 as a popular uprising but morphed into a civil war.
The extremists proved well-organized and efficient fighters, giving the ragtag rebels a boost. But the network's brutality has turned other factions against it, leading to some of the worst infighting of the conflict.
The fighting has spread from Aleppo to nearby Idlib and Raqqa, a bastion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Also Thursday, Germany announced it will help destroy Syria's stockpile of chemicals as part of international efforts to rid the country of the raw materials for poison gas and nerve agents.
The government said in a statement that German experts at a site near Hamburg will get rid of the byproducts created when the chemicals are destroyed — which is currently slated to be done aboard a ship at sea.
The first batch of toxic chemicals was loaded onto a Danish cargo ship in the Syrian port of Latakia and shipped Tuesday toward international waters.
Meanwhile, a Western diplomat said Syria's representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said insurgents twice have launched unsuccessful attacks on Syrian depots where chemicals used in poison gas and nerve agents are being stored.
The diplomat said Syria's ambassador to the OPCW reported the alleged attempted attacks Wednesday at a closed meeting of the group's executive council. The diplomat, who was at the meeting, spoke on condition of anonymity because it was closed to the media.
The Syrian representative who spoke was not available to comment and the OPCW itself declined comment because the remarks were made at a private meeting. The New York Times first reported the Syrian comments.
According to the diplomat who spoke to The Associated Press, Syria claims that the insurgent attacks on storage sites near the city of Homs and in a Damascus suburb were repelled. It was not clear when the alleged attacks happened and the report could not be independently verified.
The reported attacks underscore the risks involved in international efforts to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program.
Associated Press writers Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands; David Rising in Berlin; and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.