Syria's defense 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 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 Defense 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 center of power.
An army barracks near the "palace of the people", a huge Soviet-tile complex overlooking the sprawling capital from the western district of Dummar, came under rebel fire around 7:30 am, 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, who works as an architect, said by telephone from Dummar.
Fire in the barracks
Video footage broadcast by activists appeared to show fire in the barracks overnight as a result of an attack by mortar rounds, but residents who saw the fire said they had not heard explosions to indicate it was a result of an attack.
Dummar is a secure area containing many auxiliary installations for the presidential palace and the barracks is just hundreds of meters from the palace itself.
Fighting also erupted overnight in the southern neighborhoods of Asali and Qadam, and Hajar al-Aswad and Tadamun – mainly Sunni Muslim districts housing Damascenes and Palestinian refugees.
Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam that has dominated power in Syria since a 1963 coup.
It has endured more than a year of rebellion but recent high level defections signaled support beginning to fall away.
Two Syrian brigadier-generals were among some 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 20, including a retired general.
The official could not immediately confirm if other defected officers had also arrived in Turkey in the last 24 hours but said a number of lower-ranking soldiers usually accompanied defecting generals.
In Damascus, government troops used heavy machineguns and anti-aircraft guns against rebels moving deep in residential neighborhoods, armed mostly with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
Rebels directed their fire overnight at a large state facility turned headquarters for pro-Assad militia, known as shabbiha, drawn mainly from Alawi enclaves in nearby hills.
Army tanks and anti-aircraft guns, used as an infantry weapon, took positions in the northern neighborhood of Barzeh, where hundreds of families from the neighboring district of Qaboun are seeking shelter.
"Anti-aircraft guns are firing at Qaboun from Barzeh. There are lots of families in the streets with no place to stay. They came from Qaboun and from the outskirts of Barzeh," said Bassem, one of the activists, speaking by telephone from Barzeh.
In the central neighborhood of Midan tanks and infantry fighting vehicles known as BDMs took positions in main thoroughfares and sporadic fighting was reported.
"Armor have not been able to enter the alleyways and old streets of Midan. The neighborhoods of old Zahra and the old area near Majed mosque are in the hands of the rebels," said Abu Mazen, an activist in the district.
Rebel fighters have called the intensified guerrilla attacks in recent days, which have targeted shabbiha buses, unmarked intelligence patrols and armored vehicles in the capital, the battle "for the liberation of Damascus" after 16 months of revolt.
But senior opposition figures took a more nuanced view.
"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," Tello, a Damascene, told Reuters. "By hitting well known Sunni districts of the city, such as Midan, the regime is exposing the sectarian nature of the crackdown."
Information Minister Omran Zoabi said on Tuesday security forces were fighting armed infiltrators in Damascus. He said many had surrendered while others "escaped on foot and by car and are firing randomly in the air to frighten people".
The United Nations Security Council was scheduled to vote later on Wednesday in New York on a Western-backed resolution that threatens Assad's government with sanctions unless he stops using heavy weapons in towns and cities. Russia has declared it will block the move.