Blow to Assad

BEIRUT/AMMAN — Syria’s defence minister and President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law were killed in a Damascus suicide bomb attack carried out by a bodyguard today, the most serious blow to Assad’s high command in the country’s 16-month-old rebellion.

The bomber, said by a security source to be a bodyguard assigned to Assad’s inner circle, struck a meeting attended by ministers and senior security officials 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, the deputy defence minister, had been killed in a “terrorist bombing” and pledged to wipe out “criminal gangs”.

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 men form the core of a military crisis unit led by Assad to take charge of crushing the revolt.

“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.

Bashar has not appeared since the attack or made any statement, but sources with knowledge of the situation said the president was not at the meeting where the attack took place.

The attack came 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 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”. (Reuters)

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