- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 18, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — A bomb ripped through a high-level security meeting Wednesday in the Syrian capital, killing the defense minister as well as President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law 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.

The high-level assassinations could signal a turning point in Syria‘s civil war as the violence becomes increasingly chaotic.

Syria‘s rebel commander, Riad al-Asaad, said his forces carried out the attack.

Although state-run TV said it was a suicide blast, Mr. 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.

“God willing, this is the beginning of the end of the regime,” Mr. al-Asaad told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from his base in neighboring Turkey.

“Hopefully, Bashar will be next,” he added.

Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, 65, a former army general, is the most senior government official to be killed in the rebels’ battle to oust Mr. Assad. Also killed was Gen. Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister and one of the most feared figures in Mr. Assad’s inner circle. He is married to Mr. Assad’s elder sister, Bushra.

Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar was wounded and in stable condition, state-run TV said.

Republican Guard troops surrounded the nearby al-Shami Hospital, where some officials were taken for treatment, witnesses said.

The Assad family has ruled Syria for four decades, creating an ironclad and impenetrable regime. Wednesday’s attack was an unheard-of strike on the inner circle.

Damascus-based activist Omar al-Dimashki said large numbers of troops and plainclothes police were deployed in the streets after the explosion. Snipers took positions on high buildings in different neighborhoods, he added.

“More than 80 percent of shops in Damascus are closed. People are rushing home,” he said.

The attack came two days before the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and sex from dawn to dusk. Last year, anti-government protests sharply increased during Ramadan.

In the hours after the assassination, Syria‘s state-run TV said a presidential decree had named Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij as the new defense minister. Gen. al-Freij used to be the army chief of staff.

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