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Three Top Assad Officials Killed As Rebels Hail 'Turning Point' In Syria

by RFE/RL July 18, 2012

Syrian state TV says three members of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle have been killed in a bombing in Damascus, the strongest blow yet to the regime in the 16-month-old uprising that has devolved into civil war.

Defense Minister Daoud Rajha, Deputy Defense Minister and Assad brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, and crisis management chief Hassan Turkmani were all killed when a bomb exploded during a meeting of cabinet and security officials at the government’s national security headquarters on July 18.

Several other top officials of Assad's regime were also injured by the explosion. Security sources told Reuters that Syrian intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar was among the injured and was undergoing surgery.

State TV reported that Interior Minister Ibrahim al-Shaar also was seriously injured and was listed in "stable" condition at a Damascus hospital.

Hours after the blast, the new Syrian defense minister, General Fahad Jassim al-Freij, appeared on state television and called the incident “a criminal terrorist attack.”

"We count those who died for the sake of this country and its dignity as martyrs," he said. "We confirm that this terrorist bombing will not stop our armed forces from their duty to find the culprits and cut every hand that threatens the security of this nation and its civilians. Glory and eternity for the righteous martyrs."

'Beginning Of The End'

The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) claimed responsibility for the blast, but so did an Islamist rebel group named Liwa Al-Islam, or The Brigade of Islam.

Syria's rebel commander, Riad al-Asaad, told The Associated Press by phone from Turkey that his forces planted a bomb inside the meeting room.

"God willing, this is the beginning of the end of the regime," he said, adding, "Hopefully, Bashar will be next."

Reuters, citing security sources, reported that the bomber worked as a bodyguard for Assad's inner circle.

Following the blast, large numbers of police flooded the streets of the capital and snipers took up positions on rooftops. Although fierce fighting has been raging around Damascus for four days between government troops and the Free Syrian Army, spontaneous public celebrations broke out following the reports on Syrian TV.

In Washington, the White House said Assad, whose family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for four decades, is “losing control” of the country.

'Spinning Out Of Control'

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta echoed that view at a Pentagon press briefing, saying, "This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control, and for that reason it is extremely important that the international community, working with other countries that have concerns in that area, have to bring maximum pressure.”

On July 18, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped sanctions on 29 more Syrian officials and six Syrian companies.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged his country’s Senate to back the government’s effort to find a solution to the violence. He told the French news agency AFP, "Nearly complete chaos has now been added to the unacceptable massacres that have already taken place.”

The bombing prompted UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to ask the Security Council to delay a planned vote on a resolution threatening Syria with harsh sanctions.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia's opposition to that resolution on July 18, saying international sanctions would amount to “outright support of a revolutionary movement,” which the UN cannot do.

Iran, which as Syria's regional ally has steadfastly backed Assad since the uprising began 16 months ago, condemned the bombing and said foreign backing for "terrorist acts" would not succeed in destabilizing Syria, the Mehr news agency reported.

Activists believe more than 17,000 have been killed in Syria since violence broke out last year.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, Al Jazeera, and the BBC

Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/suicide-bomber- targets-security-building-in-damascus/24648846.html

Copyright (c) 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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