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Originally published September 12, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 12, 2006 at 12:46 PM

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Attack on U.S. Embassy in Syria thwarted

Islamic militants tried to storm the U.S. Embassy in Damascus today using automatic rifles, hand grenades and at least one van rigged with explosives, the government said.

The Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria – Islamic militants tried to storm the U.S. Embassy in Damascus today using automatic rifles, hand grenades and at least one van rigged with explosives, the government said. Four people were killed in the brazen attack, including three of the assailants, but no Americans were hurt.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. An al-Qaida offshoot group called Jund al-Sham was suspected, said Syria's ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha, in comments to CNN. The radical fundamentalist group has been blamed for several attacks in Syria in recent years, he said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Syrian security agents for repelling the attack, but added it was too early to know who may have been behind it.

The attackers apparently did not breach the high walls surrounding the embassy's white compound in the city's diplomatic neighborhood.

One of Syria's anti-terrorism forces was killed and 11 other people were wounded, the official news agency reported. The wounded including a police officer, two Iraqis and seven people employed at nearby technical workshop.

A Chinese diplomat also was hit in the face by shrapnel and slightly injured while standing on top of a garage at the Chinese Embassy, China's Foreign Ministry said. The diplomat, political counselor Li Hongyu, was in stable condition at a hospital, the ministry said.

A witness said a Syrian guard outside the U.S. Embassy also was killed, but the government did not immediately confirm that. As at most American embassies worldwide, a local guard force patrols outside the compound's walls while U.S. Marines are mostly responsible for guarding classified documents and fighting off attackers inside the compound.

Witnesses also said the gunmen tried to throw hand grenades into the embassy compound, shouting "Allahu akbar!" or "God is great!" 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. In Damascus, the sentiment has become increasingly anti-American.

Syria has seen previous attacks by Islamic militants. In June, Syrian anti-terrorism police fought Islamic militants near the Defense Ministry in a gunbattle that killed five people and wounded four. In 2004, four people were killed in a clash between police and a team of suspected bombers targeting the Canadian Embassy.

In the past, the Bush administration has been very critical of the tight control that the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad has over its people. Rice, meeting with her Canadian counterpart in Nova Scotia, would not speculate on whether today's attack may be an indication that the regime's control is slipping.

Washington recalled Ambassador Margaret Scobey after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, amid suspicions that Damascus had a role in it. She has not returned since, effectively downgrading U.S. diplomatic representation to the level of charge d'affaires.

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Pools of blood lay on the sidewalk outside the U.S. Embassy, near a burned car apparently used by the attackers. A sport utility vehicle with U.S. diplomatic tags had a bullet hole in its windshield, and the windows of nearby guard houses also were shattered.

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 video showed a burned car.

The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, said a fourth attacker now in detention was wounded in what 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.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman confirmed the attack by "unknown assailants" but had few details. "Local authorities have responded and are on the scene," said spokesman Kurtis Cooper said.

A U.S. Embassy statement said the embassy came under armed attack at 10:10 a.m. and that all embassy personnel were safe. One Syrian guard was injured by gunfire and was hospitalized in a stable condition, the statement said.

The embassy's charge d'affaires, Michael Corbin, met with Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Maguid at the scene, and spoke by phone with assistant minister of foreign affairs, Ahmed Arnous, according to the statement.

It said the Syrian government has pledged full security cooperation.

About 30 Syrian guards usually are posted around the embassy 24 hours a day, Moustapha said.

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 and parked one that was rigged with explosives in front of the embassy but did not blow it up, state-run TV reported. Explosives experts dismantled the bomb, it said.

But a witness told The Associated Press that two gunmen drove up in front of the embassy, got out of their car, shot at the Syrian sentries at the building's entrance, and then detonated explosives in the car.

The witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the security personnel fired back, and security forces rushed to the scene.

Television showed a delivery van loaded with pipe bombs strapped to large propane gas canisters outside the embassy. Had the bombs detonated, the explosions could have caused massive damage.

The video also showed the charred remains of a smaller car parked several feet behind the van.

Up to 40 U.S. diplomats are posted at the embassy, which is "average" in size, according to Tom Case, a deputy spokesman at the State Department.

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