BEIRUT – A bomb that apparently struck a restaurant in the Syrian capital killed at least five people, the state-run news agency said Tuesday, as activists reported intense clashes between army defectors and soldiers in the restive north.
It was not clear what the exact target of the blast was, although authorities in Damascus said it appeared to be a police station. But photos of the scene released by the state news agency, SANA, showed what looked like a restaurant. The area was considered too dangerous for journalists to access.
SANA said the bomb went off late Monday in the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, which has seen frequent anti-government protests.
The revolt in Syria began 15 months ago, and there are fears that extremist groups could be trying to enter the fray and exploit the chaos. The U.N. estimates the conflict has killed more than 9,000 people since March last year.
The conflict already has spilled across the border into neighboring Lebanon. The countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which can turn violent.
Lebanese Sunni groups supporting and opposing the Damascus regime fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns early Monday in the Lebanese capital, killing at least two people in the most serious outbreak of violence in Beirut since the uprising began next door.
The spark for the violence was the killing of Sheik Ahmed Abdul-Wahid, an anti-Syrian Sunni cleric, and his bodyguard Sunday in northern Lebanon. A Lebanese soldier shot the men, apparently after they failed to stop at an army checkpoint. The killing fueled deep anger over the perceived support of some of Lebanon's security forces for the Syrian regime.
Earlier this month, the arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, an outspoken Lebanese critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad, set of several days of clashes in northern Lebanon that killed eight people. Mawlawi was accused of belonging to a terrorist group.
On Tuesday, he was released from jail -- a move that could help defuse tensions.
Judicial officials said Mawlawi was released on about $330 bail and will not be allowed to leave the country.
During a news conference in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, Mawlawi said he was "subjected to psychological pressure and torture" following his May 12 arrest and was forced to give false confessions that he was connected to terror groups.
Mawlawi said he denies any link to such groups.
As he spoke, supporters at the news conference lashed out at the Syrian regime, saying "Assad is the enemy of God."
Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights reported intense clashes Tuesday in Syria between troops and defectors in the towns of Atareb in Aleppo province and Kfar Rouma in Idlib.
There was no immediate word on casualties.
The U.N. has an observer mission in the country with about 270 unarmed monitors. Their presence has not stopped the violence although the level of bloodshed has dropped compared to previous months.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous toured the central city of Homs, the flashpoint of the uprising, on Monday and met U.N. observers in the city as well as the governor.
"The first goal is to obtain a reduction in the level of violence and this you have clearly done here in Homs," Ladsous said in a statement released Tuesday. "Now there is a need to establish bridges to help solve the practical functions of everyday life and gradually establish degree of confidence between the government and opposition."
Amateur videos posted online Tuesday showed residents welcoming observers in the northern town of Maaret Musreen in the restive province of Idlib. They spray-painted two of the observers' cars with the words: "Down with Assad" and "Freedom Forever."