Heavy fighting in the streets of Damascus follows a bomb blast which killed Syria’s defence minister, deputy defence minister – President Assad’s brother-in-law – and a senior military official.
Top security officials and government ministers were attending an official meeting at the National Security headquarters in Rawda, Damascus, when a bomb went off killing three members of President Basher al-Assad‘s inner circle.
Defence Minister General Daoud Rajha died in the explosion, as well as President Assad‘s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat [pictured left with President Assad], who was described as the most feared man in Syria and a strong ally of the president. General Hassan Turkmani, a former defence minister and senior military official, died of wounds sustained in the bomb attack, security sources said.
Live video from Damascus suggests that heavy fighting and gun battles bewteen rebels and government forces, are takiong place on the streets since the bomb. Activists also reported shelling on the Mezze district and suburb of Mouadamiya from the nearby Qasioun mountain, which overlooks Damascus, where Syrian army artillery is stationed. The explosion was immediately followed by five explosions in the northwestern Damascus district of Muhajireen close to the base of the fourth armoured division that is led by President Assad’s brother Maher, residents said, but the reports were denied by Syria’s information officer.
The Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the attack saying it planted the bomb as part of its attempt to take over the Syrian capital. This contradicts initial reports which suggested a suicide bomber set off the explosion, and a security source said the bomber was the defence minister’s bodyguard. Liwa al-Islam, also known as the Islamic Brigade also claimed responsibility.
The UN security council intended to meet on Wednesday to vote on a Syrian resolution, but this has now been postponed until Thursday.
Amateur video footage uploaded to the internet [see below] shows Syrians taking to the street in some areas of Damascus to celebrate after the bomb.
Conflicting reports suggest that the country’s interior minister was also killed in the blast, which would bring the death toll to four, but sources are not confirmed. Syria‘s Intelligence Chief Hisham Bekhtyar is now undergoing surgery after he was injured in the attack.
The draft UN resolution put forward by the West would give President Assad 10 days to end the violence and then impose sanctions, however Russia has submitted its own draft resolution that continues to support Kofi Annan’s peace plan and extends the UN monitoring mission for another three months.
“These reports add dramatic sense of urgency to today’s efforts,” said a UN spokesperson. “They’re serious food-for-thought to those who still think that UNSC (the UN Security Council) should continue business as usual. UNSC inaction furthers the violence.”
Russia said that a “decisive battle” was taking place in Syria. Speaking to journalists in Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated his rejection of the West-backed UN resolution, saying it would amount to support for the rebels, and draw the country into civil war. “A decisive battle is underway in Syria,” he said. “It is a dead end policy to support the opposition. Assad will not go on his own and our Western partners don’t know what to do about that.”
An official statement from the Syrian armed forces said that the “terrorist bomb attack” is the work of “hired hands”, and that it would pursue the perpetrators.
The statement added that it was “delusional” to think the attack on Syria’s top commanders could twist the government’s arm.
Syria is “more determined than ever to confront all forms of terrorism and chop any hand that harms national security”, the armed forces added.
The suicide bomb and subsequent explosions follow four days of heavy fighting in Damascus, which had previously avoided the worst of the 16-month conflict. Yesterday the leading opposition group, the Free Syrian Army said it had launched Operation Damascus Volcano – the start of its fight to take the capital.
Britian’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said the incidents confirmed the “urgent need” for a resolution of the UN Security Council on Syria. “The situation in Syria is clearly deteriorating. All the members of the UN Security Council have a responsibility to put their weight behind the enforcement of Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s plan to end the violence,” he said.
The attack in Damascus comes as two more Syrian brigadier-generals fled from to Turkey and defected, said a Turkish official, bringing the number of Syrian generals sheltering in Turkey to 20, including a retired general. Over 42,000 Syrian refugees have crossed to Syria since the uprising began 16 months ago.