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BEIRUT/AMMAN - Syria's defense minister and President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law were killed in a Damascus suicide bomb attack carried out by a bodyguard on Wednesday, the worst blow to Assad's high command in the country's 16-month-old rebellion.
The bomber, said by a security source to be a bodyguard assigned to Assad's inner circle, struck a meeting in central Damascus attended by ministers and senior security officials as battles raged within sight of the nearby presidential palace.
State television said Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister, had been killed in a "terrorist bombing" and pledged to wipe out the "criminal gangs" responsible.
A Syrian security source confirmed Shawkat, 62, - a pillar of Assad's rule - had been killed and said General Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister and senior military official, had died later of his wounds.
The men form the core of a military crisis unit led by Assad to take charge of crushing the revolt which grew out of popular protests inspired by Arab Spring uprisings that unseated leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
"This cowardly terrorist act will not deter our men in the armed forces from continuing their sacred mission of pursuing the remnants of these armed terrorist criminal gangs," Freij said on state television. "They will cut off every hand that tries to hurt the security of the nation or its citizens."
The explosion appeared to be part of a coordinated assault on the fourth day of fighting in the capital which rebel fighters have called the "liberation of Damascus" after months of clashes which activists say have killed more than 17,000 people.
It began early on Wednesday with fighting around an army barracks in the district of Dummar, hundreds of meters from the presidential palace, and was followed by blasts close to the base of the elite 4th armored division in the southwest. The unit, led by Assad's brother Maher, has been instrumental in crushing protests around Syria.
The army barracks near the "palace of the people", a huge Soviet-style complex overlooking the city from the district of Dummar, came under rebel fire around 7.30 a.m. (0430 GMT), activists and a resident said.
"Our men managed to plant improvised explosives in the building for the meeting. We had been planning this for over a month," a spokesman for the group, who asked to be identified as Abu Ammar, said by telephone.
Two Syrian brigadier-generals were among 600 Syrians who fled from Syria to Turkey overnight, a Turkish official said on Wednesday, bringing the number of Syrian generals sheltering in Turkey to 20, including a retired general.
In Damascus, government troops used heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns, used as an infantry weapon, against rebels moving deep in residential neighborhoods, armed mostly with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
"Anti-aircraft guns are firing at Qaboun from Barzeh. There are lots of families in the streets with no place to stay. They came from Qaboun and from the outskirts of Barzeh," said Bassem, one of the activists, speaking by telephone from Barzeh.
"Armor have not been able to enter the alleyways and old streets of Midan. The neighborhoods of old Zahra and the old area near Majed mosque are in the hands of the rebels," said Abu Mazen, an activist in the district.
Rebel fighters have called the intensified guerrilla attacks in recent days, which have targeted shabbiha buses, unmarked intelligence patrols and armored vehicles in the capital, the battle "for the liberation of Damascus".
"It is going to be difficult to sustain supply lines and the rebels may have to make a tactical withdrawal at one point, like they did in other cities," veteran opposition activist Fawaz Tello said from Istanbul.
"But what is clear is that Damascus has joined the revolt," Tello, a Damascene, told Reuters. "By hitting well known Sunni districts of the city, such as Midan, the regime is exposing the sectarian nature of the crackdown."
The United Nations Security Council was scheduled to vote later on Wednesday in New York on a Western-backed resolution that threatens Assad's government with sanctions unless he stops using heavy weapons in towns and cities. Russia has declared it will block the move. (Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Oliver Holmes and Erika Soloman in Beirut, Marcus George in Dubai and Jonathon Burch in Ankara)