BEIRUT — Chaos reigned in Damascus on Wednesday as rebel forces attacked the heart of the Syrian regime in their most brazen maneuver in the 16-month-old revolt.
Top-level officials, including the Syrian defense minister and the brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad, were killed in an explosion at the National Security building, a headquarters for one of Syria’s intelligence branches that is near Mr. Assad’s private residence and less than 500 yards from the U.S. Embassy. The embassy has been closed since Washington withdrew its ambassador several months ago.
Islamist groups have claimed responsibility for the blast, but the rebel Free Syrian Army also announced that it carried out the attack in coordination with informants inside the government.
The explosion at the highest levels of Mr. Assad’s government sparked conflicting accounts over whether the blast was caused by a suicide bomber, while conspiracy theories swept the Syrian capital that the attack was a cover-up for a military coup. The explosion followed four straight days of clashes between rebels and government troops this week in Damascus.
“People are leaving these affected areas. These areas that are under shelling. They are leaving their homes for safer places,” said Lena al-Shami of the Revolution Leadership Council of Damascus. “Life is not that normal in Damascus anymore.”
The explosion at the National Security headquarters during a Cabinet meeting killed Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha, 65, and Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Assef Shawkat, Mr. Assad’s 62-year-old brother-in-law and head of military intelligence. Gen. Shawkat was one of the most feared figures in the regime.
Hassan Turkmani, 77, a former defense minister, died as a result of his wounds in a hospital. Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar and Maj. Gen. Hisham Ikhtiar, who heads the National Security Department, were wounded but reported in stable condition in a hospital.
Mr. Rajha was the most senior Christian government official in Syria, and his death is expected to resonate with Syria’s Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population of 22 million and have mostly stood by the regime. Christians say they are particularly vulnerable and fear that Syria will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Muslim groups.
Suicide bomber or rebel attack
Syrian officials blamed a suicide bomber for the attack, but the rebel Free Syrian Army said its forces had planted a bomb in the room where the Cabinet meeting was held. A rebel spokesman called the attack “the beginning of the end of the regime.”
“The Free Syrian Army proved that they can reach anywhere in Syria, even though they don’t have fighters everywhere and have limited arms,” said an activist in Damascus who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
“This will cause great confusion in the leadership of the regime and will encourage more operations for the [rebel army] and will quicken getting rid of Assad.”
Speculation about the killings has been rife. Some analysts say that someone from within the regime must have been responsible for helping rebels target the meeting.