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Bomb kills powerful Assad kin;battle in Damascus

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BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) - A bomber
killed three of Bashar al-Assad's top
military officials on Wednesday -
including his powerful brother-in-law
- in a devastating blow to the Syrian
leader's inner circle as rebels closed in vowing to "liberate" the capital. Slain brother-in-law Assef Shawkat
was one of the principle figures in the
tight, clan-based ruling elite that has
been battling to put down a 16-
month rebellion against four decades
of rule by Assad and his father. The defense minister and a senior
general were also killed and other top
security officials wounded in the
attack on a crisis meeting of top
Assad security aides that took place
as battles raged within sight of the nearby presidential palace. A security source said the bomber
was a bodyguard entrusted with
protecting the closest members of
Assad's circle. State television said it
was a suicide bomb. Two anti-Assad
groups claimed responsibility. The government vowed to retaliate,
and residents said army helicopters
fired machine guns and in some cases
rockets at several residential districts.
Television footage showed rebels
storming a security base in southern Damascus. By nightfall, activists said Syrian army
artillery had begun shelling the capital
from the mountains that overlook it. Assad's own whereabouts were a
mystery - he did not appear in public
or make a statement in the hours after
the attack. The White House said it did
not know where the Syrian leader
was. Diplomacy moved into overdrive as
countries spoke of the conflict
entering a decisive phase.
Washington, which fears a spillover
into neighboring states, said the
situation seemed to be spinning out of control. Russia's Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov said "the decisive fight"
was under way. The U.N. Security Council put off a
scheduled vote on a Syria resolution.
U.S. President Barack Obama spoke
with Russia's Vladimir Putin, who has
acted as Assad's main protector in the
diplomatic arena. State television said Shawkat and
Defense Minister Daoud Rajha had
been killed in a "terrorist bombing"
and pledged to wipe out the "criminal
gangs" responsible. It later said
General Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister and senior military
official, had died of his wounds, while
Intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar
and Interior Minister Mohammad
Ibrahim al-Shaar were wounded but
were "stable". The men form the core of a military
crisis unit led by Assad to take charge
of crushing the revolt which grew out
of a popular protests inspired by Arab
Spring uprisings that unseated
leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. "I heard ... a loud explosion but it was
not a very big bang. I went down to
take a look and I saw a lot of men in
plain clothes with rifles," one resident
near the scene told Reuters by
telephone. Windows on the third floor of the national security building were
shattered. Security sources said Assad was not
at the meeting where the attack took
place. The armed forces chief of staff,
Fahad Jassim al-Freij, quickly took
over as defense minister to avoid
giving any impression of official paralysis. "This cowardly terrorist act will not
deter our men in the armed forces
from continuing their sacred mission
of pursuing the remnants of these
armed terrorist criminal gangs," Freij
said on state television. "They will cut off every hand that tries to hurt the
security of the nation or its citizens." The explosion appeared to be part of
a coordinated assault on the fourth
day of fighting in the capital that rebel
fighters have called the "liberation of
Damascus" after months of clashes
which activists say have killed more than 17,000 people. It began early on Wednesday with
fighting around an army barracks in
the district of Dummar, hundreds of
meters from the presidential palace,
and was followed by blasts close to
the base of the elite 4th armored division in the southwest. The unit,
led by Assad's brother Maher, has
been instrumental in crushing
protests around Syria. Assad's enemies described victory as
imminent. "This is the final phase. They will fall
very soon," Abdelbasset Seida, leader
of the opposition Syrian National
Council, told Reuters in Qatar. "Today
is a turning point in Syria's history. It
will put more pressure on the regime and bring an end very soon, within
weeks or months." U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
said: "This is a situation that is rapidly
spinning out of control." He called for
maximum global pressure on Assad
to step down. Panetta said Assad's government
would be held responsible if it failed
to safeguard its chemical weapons,
which Western and Israeli official
have said have been moved from
storage sites. Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary-
General who has acted as a peace
envoy but whose calls for a ceasefire
have fallen on deaf ears, said world
powers should act to halt the
bloodshed. "DECISIVE BATTLE" A video posted by activists who said it
was filmed in the southern Qadam
district showed at least two bodies
lying in pools of blood and one rebel
commander said at least 45 civilians
had been killed in Damascus on Wednesday. There was no way to confirm the
figure, and he gave no tally of rebel or
security forces casualties. The Syrian
government restricts access by
international journalists. Western leaders fear the conflict,
which has been joined by al Qaeda-
style Jihadists, could destabilize Syria's
neighbors - Israel, Lebanon, Turkey,
Iraq and Jordan. Syrian Information Minister Omran
Zoabi blamed Western and Sunni Arab
governments for the crisis. "They are
responsible for every drop of blood.
And they will be accountable," he
said. "I stress to them that this is the
decisive battle in all of Syria," Zoabi
said on state television. Rebels say they have brought
reinforcements from outside the city
to topple Assad by attacking the
power base of the ruling elite for the
first time. Syrian forces hit rebel positions across
the capital after the attack on the
security meeting, with activists saying
government troops and pro-
government militia were flooding in. State television broadcast footage it
said was filmed on Wednesday
showing men in blue army fatigues
ducking for cover and firing - the first
time official media has shown clashes
in the heart of the capital. REBEL CLAIMS Two rebel groups claimed
responsibility for the attack on the
security meeting. "This is the volcano we talked about,
we have just started," said Qassim
Saadedine, a spokesman for the Free
Syrian Army, a group made up of
army defectors and Sunni youths. Liwa al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group
the name of which means "The
Brigade of Islam", said it had carried
out the attack by planting a
homemade bomb in the building. Fighting also erupted overnight in the
southern neighborhoods of Asali and
Qadam, and in Hajar al-Aswad and
Tadamon - poor, mainly Sunni Muslim
districts housing Damascenes and
Palestinian refugees. Assad and the ruling elite belong to
the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot
of Shi'ite Islam whose power was
cemented after a coup in 1970. The
elite has endured more than a year of
rebellion but recent high level defections have signaled support
beginning to fall away. Two Syrian brigadier-generals were
among 600 Syrians who fled from
Syria to Turkey overnight, a Turkish
official said on Wednesday, bringing
the number of Syrian generals
sheltering in Turkey to at least 20. In Damascus, government troops
used heavy machine guns and anti-
aircraft guns against rebels moving
deep in residential neighborhoods,
armed mostly with small arms and
rocket-propelled grenades. Rebel fighters have called the
intensified guerrilla attacks in recent
days the battle "for the liberation of
Damascus". Still, some opposition figures did not
predict easy victory. "It is going to be difficult to sustain
supply lines and the rebels may have
to make a tactical withdrawal at one
point, like they did in other cities,"
veteran opposition activist Fawaz
Tello said from Istanbul. "But what is clear is that Damascus
has joined the revolt." (Additional reporting by Mariam
Karouny, Oliver Holmes and Erika
Solomon in Beirut, Marcus George in
Dubai and Jonathon Burch in Ankara;
Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by
Peter Graff)

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