Bomb rocks Syrian leader al-Assad’s inner circle

Bomb rocks Syrian leader al-Assad’s inner circle

Bomb rocks Syrian leader al-Assad’s inner circle

Syria’s President al-Assad (C) stands with leaders of the army, including al-Freij (front L), new defense minister and Daoud Rajha (front R), ex-minister, in Damascus. REUTERS Photo

A bomb ripped through a high-level security meeting yesterday in the Syrian capital, killing the defense minister, President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law, and the head of the regime’s crisis cell, in the harshest blow to the government’s inner circle in the 16-month uprising.

Syrian state-run TV said the blast came during a meeting of Cabinet ministers and senior security officials in Damascus, which has seen four straight days of clashes between rebels and government troops.

Interior minister Mohammed al-Shaar and Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar, the head of National Security, were among those listed as wounded in the bombing. The National Security branch, a linchpin of Syria’s security apparatus, is headed by Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar.

Syria’s rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) claimed responsibility for the attacks. The command of the FSA announced “the good news of the outstanding operation this morning that targeted the National Security headquarters” and the killing of the officials “responsible for barbaric massacres,” it said in a statement.

Although state-run TV said it was a suicide blast, rebel commander Riad al-Asaad said his rebel forces planted a bomb in the room and detonated it. All those involved in carrying out the attack are safe, he said. “Hopefully Bashar will be next,” al-Asaad said. Rebel forces on July 17 said the battle to “liberate” Damascus had begun, as heavy fighting raged on.

Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, 65, a former army general, is the most senior government official yet to have been killed in the rebels’ battle to oust al-Assad. Rajha was the most senior Christian government official in Syria, appointed to the post by al-Assad last year.

Also killed was Gen. Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister and one of the most feared figures in al-Assad’s inner circle. He was also married to al-Assad’s elder sister, Bushra. An authority with direct knowledge of the situation said Hassan Turkmani, the head of the regime’s crisis cell and the former Syrian defense minister, also died in a bombing in Damascus.

Blame to Turkey

Republican Guard troops surrounded the nearby al-Shami Hospital, where some officials were taken for treatment, witnesses said. Damascus-based activist Omar al-Dimashki said large numbers of troops and plainclothes police were deployed on the streets after the explosion. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zubi, speaking on state TV, vowed that those behind the attack will be held accountable, even if they are outside the country. He said the bombing was orchestrated by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi and Israeli intelligence and won’t go unanswered.

In the hours after the assassination, Syria’s state-run TV said a presidential decree named Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij as the new defense minister. Al-Freij used to be the army chief of staff. The Syrian army said in a statement that its forces would continue to fight.