Syrian bombing: Key regime figures killed in attack
THOUSANDS OF Syrians took to the streets of Damascus yesterday cheering and chanting after a bomber penetrated the city’s military intelligence headquarters, detonating a device that took the lives of at least three of the Assad regime’s most senior figures.
Last night, fighting was reported in several Damascene suburbs between the army and rebels. Earlier, US defence secretary Leon Panetta said the country was lurching into unpredictable territory. “This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control,” he said.
As the news broke in Lebanon, there was gunfire in Tripoli as Assad-supporting Alawites clashed with Sunnis.
As the United Nations Security Council postponed, until at least today, further consideration of the crisis, intense efforts behind the scenes were under way to achieve a common position among the five permanent members. US president Barack Obama telephoned Russian president Vladimir Putin and UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan condemned the attack.
The opposition was jubilant.
“This is the final phase. They will fall very soon,” said Abdelbasset Seida, head of the Syrian National Council speaking in the Qatari capital, Doha. “Today is a turning point in Syria’s history.”
Those who died were members of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle and were key implementers of his strategy of suppressing the rebellion by force. They were: deputy defence minister Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law of the president; defence minister Daoud Rajha; and former defence minister Hassan Turkmani, who was also head of the military’s crisis management team. Some sources said the interior minister Muhammad Shaar was killed; others that he was merely wounded.
The Syrian military blamed “hired hands” for the bombing and vowed to confront “all forms of terrorism”. Iran denounced the bombing in similar terms. The Syrian armed forces statement, broadcast on state television, said the government was “more determined than ever” to wipe out “criminal gangs”.
Gen Shawkat was the most powerful member of the regime’s inner circle to die during the 16-month rebellion. He had been playing a key role in trying to crush it. Gen Rajha, a Greek Orthodox Christian, was the most senior member of the cabinet to be killed. Gen Turkmani and Shaar were two of the highest-placed Sunnis in the government.
Army chief Fahed al-Jassem al-Freij was promptly appointed defence minister. Republican Guard troops took charge of the area around the building where the attack took place and surrounded the nearby Shami hospital where the injured were taken. The wounded reportedly included senior intelligence official Hafez Makhlouf, a maternal cousin of the president and brother of tycoon Rami Makhlouf, and head of the national security bureau Hisham Bekhtyar.
The explosion is said to have taken place in the room where the government’s crisis management team was discussing the four-day rebel offensive in the capital. Syria’s media said the perpetrator was a suicide bomber, possibly a security guard to one of the victims. But this was denied by the opposition.
As news of the bombing spread, celebrations erupted in the streets of the capital. In some places there were skirmishes between pro- and anti-regime factions.
Col Riad al-Assad, head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, claimed the operation and said those who carried it out were safe. The attack signified “the beginning of the end of the regime . . . Hopefully Bashar will be next,” he said.
Five explosions were also heard yesterday in Muhajireen a district in the northwest of the city near the main base of the elite Fourth Armoured Division, commanded by President Assad’s brother Maher, regarded as the second most important figure in the regime.
Rebels posted images on the internet showing a burning military barracks overlooking the presidential palace. They claimed it had been struck by fire from Free Syrian Army fighters and said the barracks served troops providing security for the palace, which was reported to be surrounded by protective tanks.
Fighting continued in the central Damascus quarter of Midan where troops went on the offensive and in districts along the southern edge of the city. Army helicopters are said to have fired into residential areas. By last night activists in neighbourhoods that have seen fighting over the past four days said government troops and militias were flooding in to quash rebels.
“There is a very heavy presence of security forces in the streets now,” said Susan Ahmad, a resident of Barzeh where rebels have been hiding. “Apart from Assad’s forces, the streets are empty,” she added.
State TV announced a call-up of army reserves for today. A strong response to the bombing is expected but opposition activists reported defections among troops, including some from armoured units.