BEIRUT — A car bomb in a rebel-held town in northwestern Syria killed at least 15 people and wounded dozens in a crowded outdoor market Monday, setting cars on fire and sending people running in panic, two activist groups said.
The bomb went off in the town of Darkoush in Idlib province, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees. The marketplace was busy with shoppers on the eve of Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim holiday.
It was not clear who carried out the bombing and why they attacked a civilian target in a rebel-held area. Syria's conflict has seen an increasing use of car bombings, but most have been carried out against regime targets, usually by jihadi fighters among rebels.
The Observatory put the death toll at 27, while the Committees said 15 were killed. Such discrepancies often occur in the aftermath of such attacks.
An amateur video posted on the LCC's Facebook page shows several cars on fire in a street full of debris. People are seen running in panic as smoke billows from the area, and several shops and apartment buildings appear heavily damaged. Another video shows men carrying two bodies and placing them in a blanket. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to AP reporting on the events.
Just a day earlier, two car bombs exploded near the state TV building in Damascus. The SANA news agency said the TV's headquarters in Umayyad Square was damaged in the blast, but there was no word on casualties.
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva confirmed Monday that three of its employees and one from the Syrian Red Crescent were released, a day after being kidnapped by gunmen in Idlib province. The fate of three other ICRC employees who were also kidnapped Sunday was not immediately known.
The Observatory and a local activist in Idlib said the aid workers had been seized by an al-Qaida-linked group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, but there was no claim of responsibility.
Much of the Idlib countryside and other parts of northern and eastern Syria have fallen under the control of rebels, many of them Islamic extremists. Kidnappings have become common, particularly of aid workers and foreign journalists.
The intensity of the conflict, which has left more than 100,000 dead, has not abated in the past two weeks — even as inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons press on with their work to destroy the country's chemical weapons stockpile.
The watchdog agency won a Nobel Peace Prize last week, in a powerful endorsement of its Syria mission.
Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the OPCW, said Monday that inspectors have so far visited five of at least 20 sites linked to chemical weapons. The BBC quoted him as saying that one abandoned site was in rebel-held territory and that in other cases, routes went through opposition-controlled areas, preventing access.
"They change hands from one day to another, which is why we appeal to all sides in Syria to support this mission, to be cooperative and not render this mission more difficult. It's already challenging," he told the BBC.
The mission stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus in which the U.N. determined the nerve agent sarin was used. Hundreds of people were killed, including many children. The West says the Syrian government was responsible, while Damascus blames the rebels.
Monday marked the date that Syria formally joined the OPCW, 30 days after submitting its application at the United Nations.
In an interview with the Lebanese Al-Akbar newspaper, Syrian President Bashar Assad was quoted Monday as saying that his country stopped manufacturing chemical agents in 1997 because they became an "outdated deterrent." He said Syria has since concentrated on its missile capabilities.
Damascus is believed to have thousands of long-range missiles that can reach targets almost anywhere inside Israel, its arch enemy.
In the interview, Assad said that ridding Syria of its chemical weapons would present "neither a moral nor a political loss."
"Developing Syria's missile deterrent force that can be used from the first moments of war ended the necessity of chemical weapons,' Assad was quoted as saying.
Asked about the OPCW getting the Nobel prize, Assad attempted an apparent joke, saying, "this prize should have been mine."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.N-Arab League envoy for Syria said an international conference to set up a Syrian transitional government must be organized and held as soon as possible.
Kerry said Syria urgently needs a transitional government and that it is imperative to get the so-called "Geneva II" conference organized by a mid-November target.
He also said Assad "has lost the legitimacy to be able to be a cohesive force that could bring people together."
However, it's not clear if the Syrian political opposition will attend.
In other developments, Syrians lost power Monday in several regions in the country's center as well as areas on the Mediterranean coast but there was no indication if the power cut was related to the conflict or result of sabotage.
SANA quoted Minister of Electricity Imad Khamis as saying that a malfunction at a power station had caused the outage. Khamis said maintenance work was underway and that power will gradually return in the coming hours.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid and Karin Laub in Beirut, and Mike Corder in Amsterdam, Netherlands, contributed reporting.