A man crashed a bomb-laden automobile into the Syrian Information Ministry in Damascus today, setting off a powerful explosion that heavily damaged the building and reportedly killed the attacker and injured several persons.
The Syrian government blamed the attack on a Moslem Brotherhood terrorist who it said doubled as an agent for Israel and the American Central Intelligence Agency. The Moslem Brotherhood has been waging a campaign against the government of President Hafez Assad for nearly three years.
The Information Ministry, a modern 10-story building in Damascus' Mezza district, also houses Al Baath, the official newspaper of the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party.
The blast coincided with Syrian Army operations at Hamah, 120 miles north of Damascus, to root out a fundamentalist-inspired revolt that has made that city a battleground for the last 17 days and left casualties estimated in the hundreds.
Diplomatic sources in Damascus said the Hamah uprising appeared likely to end soon after Syrian forces complete their house-to-house sweep of brotherhood strongholds.
The choice of today's target seemed to indicate that Assad's foes want to demonstrate publicly their ability to continue bloody attacks even as the Syrian Army was putting down the Hamah rebels in operations that foreign correspondents have been prevented from observing.
Salwa Ustwani, a Syrian correspondent for United Press International, who was in the ministry at the time of the noon explosion, said Information Minister Ahmed Iskander also was present but was unhurt. She said she saw about 40 persons lying injured.
A government statement tonight said that only "a small number" of ministry employes had suffered minor injuries, but it gave no figures, The Associated Press reported.
The man with the explosives drove into the compound claiming to be a newspaper dealer picking up copies of Al Baath, Ustwani said. After a discussion with guards, he gunned the engine, lurched into the building and exploded the bomb, she said. The bomber's car was left a twisted wreck and he was blown into pieces, she said.
Although the building remained standing, its windows were shattered and a large gap showed in the first few floors on the side where the bomb exploded, news agencies quoted witnesses as saying. Ustwani said nearby buildings and cars also were damaged by the powerful blast.
Three groups, based in Beirut, Paris and New York, telephoned news agencies claiming responsibility for the attack.
The bombing was the most serious individual strike against the government since Nov. 29, when a panel truck loaded with explosives was detonated in a crowded downtown area, killing 200 persons, according to reliable unofficial estimates. That blast was blamed by the government on the Moslem Brotherhood, as was a bombing Sept. 3 near the Syrian Air Force headquarters that killed about 100 cadets and civilians.
In addition, a six-wheel truck was stopped Dec. 23 in Omayyad Square, a busy intersection near Assad's residence, and found to contain a large quantity of explosives.
Diplomatic sources interviewed several days ago in Damascus predicted that, even after Hamah is quiet, Moslem Brotherhood activists willing to sacrifice their lives are likely to continue individual attacks.
Assad's Moslem Brotherhood foes began their campaign against his rule in the spring of 1979 with isolated assassination attempts on officials and notables connected to the government. An unsuccessful attack was mounted against Assad 18 months ago.
They also have generated broader revolts in Aleppo and Homs, as well as Hamah, on several occasions. Each time, the uprisings were put down forcibly by the Syrian Army, the base of Assad's 11-year-old rule.
The brotherhood has attacked the government for what it calls repressive rule. In addition, the fundamentalists have expressed resentment at Assad's Alawite minority and its role in the government.
Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, make up 12 percent of Syria's 10.5 million inhabitants, compared to the Sunnis' 70 percent, but they occupy many key posts, particularly in the armed forces.