Several top Syrian government officials were killed or wounded on Wednesday in an attack by a suicide bomber during a meeting of government ministers and the heads of security agencies in Damascus.
According to Syrian state television, Defense Minister Daoud Rajha, former Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani, and Assad brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who served as the country's deputy defense minister, were killed in the attack.
Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar, who was reported killed in the blast by some Arab television stations, was seriously wounded in the bombing, according to opposition activists. State television said he was in a "stable condition."
Security sources said the country's intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar was also wounded in the attack and was undergoing surgery.
Activists in Damascus said by telephone that Republican Guards sealed off the Shami hospital in the capital after ambulances had brought in casualties from the site of the explosion.
The suicide attack was carried out by a bodyguard for the president's inner circle, a Syrian security source said.
Two groups claimed responsibility for the explosion.
Liwa al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group whose name means "The Brigade of Islam," said in a statement on its Facebook page that it had "targeted the cell called the crisis control room in the capital of Damascus." A spokesman for the group confirmed the claim by telephone.
Fighting in Damascus, July 18
The Free Syrian Army also claimed responsibility for the attack, according to spokesman Qassim Saadedine. "This is the volcano we talked about, we have just started," he said.
The capital has seen four straight days of clashes pitting government troops against rebels, who are trying to bring down the regime by force.
Meanwhile, Arab television stations broadcasted what they said was live footage of dozens of Syrian rebels storming a security post in southern Damascus on Wednesday.
The footage showed fighters surrounding the building, firing and waving rifles. Smoke could be seen rising in the background, though it was not clear whether the security building itself was on fire.
Battles break out near Syrian presidential palace
Clashes came within sight of Syrian President Bashar Assad's presidential palace on Wednesday as fighting erupted in major Damascus neighborhoods for a fourth day.
An army barracks near the "Palace of the People," a huge Soviet-style complex overlooking the sprawling capital from the western district of Dummar, came under rebel fire around 7.30 a.m., 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 phone from Dummar.
Video footage broadcast by activists purportedly showed 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 neighbourhoods of Asali and Qadam, and Hajar al-Aswad and Tadamun - mainly Sunni Muslim districts housing Damascenes and Palestinian refugees.
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.
Erdogan calls on Assad to step down
Also on Wednesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday called Assad to step down, after meeting Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
"Because of the merciless actions of the Assad regime 18,000 people have lost their lives and 40,000 refugees are in Turkey, 150,000 in Jordan and 20,000 in Lebanon", Erdogan said.
But he added he would be against foreign intervention. "The Syrian people shall decide on Assad's destiny."
Putin described his talks with Erdogan as "a good foundation for Syria's future."
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