- Associated Press - Thursday, July 19, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad attended the swearing-in of his new defense minister Thursday, according to footage shown on state TV, the first sign of the president since an audacious rebel attack the day before struck at the heart of his regime and killed three senior officials.

Government forces struck back against rebels with attack helicopters and shelling in a fifth straight day of clashes in Damascus. The inability of the military to control the clashes in the capital against lightly armed rebel forces and the deadly bombing of a high-level security meeting a day earlier made Mr. Assad’s hold on power look increasingly tenuous.

The whereabouts of Mr. Assad, his wife and their three young children have been a mystery since the attack that killed his brother-in-law and his defense minister. Mr. Assad does not appear in public frequently, and his absence was notable following such a serious blow his inner circle.

The state TV announcement appeared aimed at sending the message that Mr. Assad is alive and well. It said the president, dressed in a blue suit and tie, wished the new defense minister good luck but it did not say where the swearing-in took place.

Thousands of Syrians streamed across the Syrian border into Lebanon, fleeing as fighting in the capital entered its fifth straight day, witnesses said. Residents near the Masnaa crossing point — about 25 miles from Damascus — said hundreds of private cars as well as taxis and buses were ferrying people across.

Wednesday’s rebel bomb attack struck the harshest blow yet to Mr. Assad’s regime. The White House said it showed Mr. Assad was “losing control” of Syria.

Syrian TV confirmed the deaths of Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, 65, a former army general and the most senior government official to be killed in the rebels’ battle to oust Mr. Assad; Gen. Assef Shawkat, 62, the deputy defense minister, who was married to Mr. Assad’s elder sister, Bushra, and was one of the most feared figures in the inner circle; and Hassan Turkmani, 77, a former defense minister who died of his wounds in the hospital.

Also wounded were Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar and Maj. Gen. Hisham Ikhtiar, who heads the National Security Department. State TV said both were in stable condition.

Rebels claimed responsibility, saying they targeted the room where the top government security officials in charge of crushing the revolt were meeting.

Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of nearly 300 unarmed U.N. observers in Syria, condemned the violence and encouraged a diplomatic solution, which appears increasingly out of reach.

“It pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria,” Gen. Mood said in Damascus.

Hours later, China and Russia vetoed a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria‘s crisis — reflecting divisions between them and the West on who is responsible for Syria‘s crisis and how to stop it.

The resolution would have imposed non-military sanctions against Mr. Assad’s government if it didn’t withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated areas within 10 days. It was tied to Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which eventually could allow the use of force to end the conflict.

Russia and China long have opposed any moves that put the blame exclusively on Damascus or could pave the way for foreign military intervention in Syria.

The 11-2 vote, with two abstentions, leaves in limbo the future of the 300-person U.N. monitoring team in Syria, mandate of which expires Friday.

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