A massive suicide car bomb ripped through the heart of Damascus on Monday, killing at least 15 people and littering a central street with dead bodies and the carcasses of charred cars.
"Terrorists detonate car bomb between Sabaa Bahrat Square and Shahbander Street," state television reported, adding that initial information suggested it had been a suicide attack.
"The preliminary toll from the terrorist bombing... is more than 15 martyrs and 53 injuries," the broadcaster added.
An AFP correspondent said the blast caused extensive damage and that intense gunfire was heard shortly afterwards. The blast damaged the AFP Damascus office, blowing out the windows, but no staff were hurt.
State television broadcast scenes of devastation as huge plumes of thick black smoke billowed up around buildings in the area, partly obscuring them.
Dozens of vehicles were damaged, some crumpled almost beyond recognition, others with their windows blown out or cracked by the blast. Several were completely gutted, only their charred chassis remaining.
Firefighters rushed to the area, attempting to control blazes started by the explosion, which one state broadcaster said took place near a school, adding that children were believed to be among the dead and wounded.
The footage showed bloodied bodies with limbs askew and chunks of flesh strewn on the streets, with bystanders draping clothes or cardboard boxes over them.
One group of men worked to retrieve a body from a badly damaged yellow taxi, tugging at its jammed doors. A veiled woman wept as she walked from the scene, passing a man holding a terrified, sobbing young girl.
"I was in the street with my colleague when the ground shook beneath our feet," 32-year-old Anana told AFP, not far from Sabaa Bahrat Square.
"People started to scream 'explosion, explosion' and we saw a cloud of thick, black smoke emerge from the scene of the attack."
"We have to stop this bloodbath! When we leave home we don't know if we'll return alive," sobbed Mayssa, who worked near the scene of the blast.
"We say to those behind these attacks that the Syrian people... will move forward to crush these armed terrorist gangs," Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi said, speaking to media at the scene.
The attack, which was not claimed by any group, occurred near the Syrian central bank, and security forces and the army quickly moved into the area to prevent people from approaching the site of the attack.
On March 21, a huge explosion ripped through a Damascus mosque killing at least 49 people, including a key pro-regime Sunni cleric. And a month earlier, on February 21, at least 83 people were killed in a spate of bombings in the city.
Elsewhere, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday that a UN inspection team was in Cyprus and ready to deploy to Syria to probe the alleged use of chemical weapons in the conflict.
"I can announce today that an advance team is now in Cyprus, the final staging point" before the mission heads to Syria, Ban said in The Hague. "We are ready."
"The UN is now in the position to deploy in Syria -- in less than 24 hours all logistical arrangements will in place," Ban said after President Bashar al-Assad called on the UN to probe allegations rebels had used chemical weapons.
"All we are waiting for is the go-ahead of the Syrian government to determine if any chemical weapons have been deployed," he added.
"We are still in the process of discussing it with the Syrian government."
Syria's conflict, now in its third year, is believed to have killed more than 70,000 people. On Sunday alone, 157 people were killed throughout the country, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog.