By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Syrian state-run television says both Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and President Bashar al-Assad’s influential brother-in-law were killed by a suicide bomber who infiltrated a heavily guarded government building in central Damascus.
The attack targeted a meeting of Assad’s top security and military officials in the National Security building in the Rawda district of the capital. It came as fighting raged for a fourth day in Damascus between government troops and the opposition Free Syrian Army.
Assad moved quickly to restore leadership to the Defense Ministry. State television reports that he named Fahd al-Freij as new defense minister within hours of the blast.
Several other top officials of Assad’s regime also were injured by the explosion.
Security sources told Reuters that Syrian intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar was among the injured and was undergoing surgery.
State TV reported that Interior Minister Ibrahim al-Shaar also was seriously injured and was listed in “stable” condition at a Damascus hospital.
Presidential guards reportedly have sealed off the hospital where the wounded officials were taken.
Reports by state television say Assad’s brother-in-law — Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat — died at a Damascus hospital from injuries he sustained in the suicide attack.
Shawkat was head of Syria’s military intelligence from 2005 to 2009 before he was promoted to the deputy minister’s post. He married Assad’s sister Bushra in 1995.
Two groups have claimed responsibility for the attack. They are Liwa Al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group whose name means The Brigade of Islam, and the Free Syrian Army. Neither claim could be immediately confirmed.
Government forces have been using tanks, rockets, and attack helicopters since heavy fighting erupted in Damascus during the weekend. But the Free Syrian Army said on July 17 that it has launched its own offensive in the capital, calling it “Damascus Volcano.”
A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army said the July 18 suicide attack was “the volcano we were talking about.”
Reuters, quoting security sources, reported that the bomber worked as a bodyguard for Assad’s inner circle.
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has reiterated Russia’s opposition to Western calls for a UN Security Council resolution that threatens sanctions against Syria’s regime.
Citing the opposition declaration of a “decisive battle” under way in Damascus, Lavrov on July 18 said the threat of sanctions would amount to “outright support of a revolutionary movement.” He said that is something the United Nations cannot do.
The United Nations Security Council is due to vote later on a draft resolution addressing the Syrian conflict.
A new resolution is needed to extend the UN monitoring mission in Syria beyond July 20.