DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- A car bomb exploded Thursday near Syria's ruling party headquarters in Damascus, killing at least 53 people and scattering mangled bodies among the blazing wreckage in one of the bloodiest days in the capital since the uprising began almost two years ago.
Elsewhere in the city, two other bombs struck intelligence offices, killing 22, and mortar rounds hit the army's central command, activists said.
Recent rebel advances in the Damascus suburbs, combined with the bombings and three straight days of mortar attacks, mark the most sustained challenge of the civil war for control of the seat of President Bashar Assad's power.
Syrian state media said the car bombing near the Baath Party headquarters and the Russian Embassy was a suicide attack that killed 53 civilians and wounded more than 200, with children among the casualties. Anti-regime activists put the death toll at 61, which would make it the deadliest Damascus bombing of the revolt.
The violence has shattered the sense of normalcy that the Syrian regime has desperately tried to maintain in Damascus, a city that has largely been insulated from the bloodshed and destruction that has left other urban centers in ruins.
The rebels launched an offensive on Damascus in July following a stunning bombing on a high-level government crisis meeting that killed four top regime officials, including Assad's brother-in-law and the defense minister. Following that attack, rebel groups that had established footholds in the suburbs pushed in, battling government forces for more than a week before being routed and swept out.
Since then, government warplanes have pounded opposition strongholds on the outskirts, and rebels have managed only small incursions on the city's southern and eastern sides.
But the recent bombings and mortar attacks suggest that instead of trying a major assault, rebel fighters are resorting to guerrilla tactics to loosen Assad's grip on the heavily fortified capital.
The fighting in Damascus also follows a string of tactical victories in recent weeks for the rebels - capturing the nation's largest hydroelectric dam and overtaking airbases in the northeast - that have contributed to the sense that the opposition may be gaining some momentum.
But Damascus is the ultimate prize in the civil war, and many view the battle for the ancient city as the most probable endgame of a conflict that according to U.N. estimates has killed nearly 70,000 people.
To defend the capital, Assad is using his most reliable and loyal troops, activists say, including the Republican Guard and the feared 4th Division, commanded by his brother, Maher. Armed checkpoints have sprung up across the city as part of the regime's efforts to keep the rebels at bay.
Thursday's car bomb hit a checkpoint on a bustling thoroughfare in the central Mazraa neighborhood between the Baath Party headquarters and the Russian Embassy. The force of the explosion shattered the balconies of apartment blocks along the tree-lined street and blew out the windows and doors of the party building.
Video of the blast site on Syrian state TV showed firefighters dousing a flaming car with hoses, while lifeless and dismembered bodies were tossed onto the grass of a nearby park. The state news agency, SANA, published photos showing a large crater in the middle of the rubble-strewn street and charred cars with blackened bodies inside.
"It was huge. Everything in the shop turned upside down," one local resident said. He said three of his employees were injured by flying glass that killed a young girl who was walking by when the blast hit.
"I pulled her inside the shop, but she was almost gone. We couldn't save her. She was hit in the stomach and head," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution for talking to foreign media.
Ambulances rushed to the scene of the blast, which sent a huge cloud of black smoke billowing into the sky.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but suspicion will likely fall upon one of the most extreme of Syria's myriad rebel factions, Jabhat al-Nusra.
The group, which the U.S. has designated to be a terrorist organization, has claimed past bombings on regime targets, including the double suicide blast outside an intelligence building in May that killed 55.
Such tactics have galvanized Assad's supporters and made many other Syrians distrustful of the rebel movement as a whole, most of whose fighters do not use such tactics.
The main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, condemned Thursday's bombing without accusing a specific group of carrying it out. It did, however, suggest that the regime allowed foreign terrorist groups to operate in Syria.