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Mar 29, 7:46 AM EDT

Syrian police: Bus bombing kills 5 in central city of Homs


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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- A bomb planted on a taxi van carrying university students in the Syrian city of Homs exploded Wednesday, killed at least five people and wounding four, the local police chief told state TV.

Maj. Gen. Khaled Hilal said the explosion went off in the 14-passenger van around midday in the city's al-Zahra district. Most residents of the neighborhood are Alawites, a minority sect that has traditionally formed the backbone of support for President Bashar Assad. The Syrian opposition is mainly drawn from the country's Sunni Muslim majority.

The attack came as Syrian rebels and their families were in the process of evacuating the last opposition-held neighborhood in the central city under a surrender agreement with the government. The opposition has criticized the evacuation of the long-besieged al-Waer area, saying it amounts to the forced displacement of civilians, allegations the government denies.

Hilal said initial reports indicate a man placed a plastic bag under one of the van's seats and exited the vehicle before the bomb went off. Footage aired on al-Ikhbariya state TV shows the skeleton of the van after the explosion, with the roof blown off and the back-side shattered. A pool of blood was visible near the wreckage.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-run monitoring group, said at least two people were killed.

Syria's conflict began with peaceful protests against Assad in 2011 but escalated into a civil war after a brutal government crackdown and the rise of an armed insurgency.

It became increasingly sectarian with the rise of Sunni insurgent groups and the arrival of Shiite militants from across the region to fight alongside Assad's forces. Assad and his family are Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

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