BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syria’s defence minister and President Bashar al-Assad’s brother in-law were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Damascus on Wednesday, in the most serious blow to President Bashar al-Assad’s high command in a 16-month-old revolt.
It was not clear whether Assad himself was present when a suicide bomber, said by a security source to be a bodyguard assigned to Assad’s inner circle, struck a security meeting in the Syrian capital as battles raged within sight of the presidential palace.
State television said Defence Minister Daoud Rajha and Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat were killed in a “terrorist bombing”.
A Syrian security source confirmed Shawkat, 62, was killed and said Intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar was wounded. State television said Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar had also been wounded in the blast.
The attack took place on a fourth day of fighting in the capital, where rebels from outside the city have brought the fight to end four decades of rule by the Assad family close to the power base of the ruling elite for the first time.
Republican Guard troops had sealed off the Shami hospital near the site of the explosion, indicating senior officials were among the wounded, activists contacted by telephone had said.
“The terrorist explosion which targeted the national security building in Damascus occurred during a meeting of ministers and a number of heads of (security) agencies,” state television said.
The start of a fourth day of fighting in the capital early on Wednesday had already brought the 16-month-old revolt close to the centre of power.
Republican Guard troops sealed off the Shami hospital near the site of the explosion, activists said. An army statement issued after the blast said Syria was “more determined than ever to confront all forms of terrorism and chop off any hand that harms national security”.
An army barracks near the “palace of the people”, a huge Soviet-style complex overlooking the city from the western district of Dummar, came under rebel fire around 7.30 a.m. (0430 GMT), activists and a resident said.
“I could hear the sound of small arms fire, and explosions are getting louder and louder from the direction of the barracks,” Yasmine, an architect, said by telephone from Dummar.