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Syrian defense minister killed in bombing

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(CNN Photo)

DAMASCUS (CNN) — Syria’s defense minister and deputy defense minister were killed Wednesday in a blast at a national security building in Damascus, state media reported.

The attack brings the bloodshed in Syria well into President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle and could mark a pivotal point in the 16-month uprising.

Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha and Deputy Minister Assef Shawkat — who is al-Assad’s brother-in-law — were killed in the explosion during a meeting of ministers and security officials, state TV reported.

They are the highest-ranking Syrian officials killed in the uprising.

The bombing resulted in other casualties among attendees, state TV reported.

With the Syrian government restricting access to the country by foreign journalists, there was no immediate way to confirm reports on the blast.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said initial reports indicate a car bomb caused an “intense explosion” in Damascus.

Syrian state TV reported that the country’s interior minister is well and that his health is stable.

Rime Allaf, an analyst with the think tank Chatham House, said the reports could suggest that “the regime itself is crumbling.”

Anthony Skinner, an analyst with Maplecroft, said the attack represents “a massive psychological blow to the regime” and will accelerate al-Assad’s “demise.”

Increasing numbers of officials in the Syrian military have defected in recent days.

Two more brigadier generals fled to Turkey overnight, bringing the number of Syrian generals in Turkey to 20, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said.

Chaos ensued elsewhere in Damascus when loud explosions and heavy gunfire echoed through the city, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.

Meanwhile, in the besieged city of Homs, “regime forces have intensified the shelling by using helicopter gunships, artillery and mortars in the city,” the LCC said.

By midday Wednesday, at least 15 people had been killed across the country, the opposition network said.

Halfway across the world, the U.N. Security Council could vote Wednesday on the fate of 300 U.N. monitors as a Friday deadline looms.

The observers’ work has been largely curtailed due to relentless violence that has surged in recent weeks and has moved into the capital of Damascus.

Security Council diplomats in New York are wrangling this week over dueling draft resolutions on the Syrian crisis.

Western countries are pushing for a resolution that threatens sanctions against al-Assad’s regime if government forces don’t stop attacks. That draft also calls for renewing the U.N. observer mission for 45 days.

But throughout Syria’s 16-month crisis, Russia has opposed any international effort that seeks to blame, punish or change the Syrian government. Russia — along with China — has vetoed two previous draft resolutions in the U.N. Security Council, leading to accusations that Russia is protecting the Syrian regime.

Russia, meanwhile, has put forth its own draft, which “strongly urges all parties in Syria to cease immediately all armed violence in all its forms.” The Russian draft also calls for renewing the U.N. observer mission for three months.

On Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited the Syrian-Jordan border and said his visit “brought home to me the full extent of the human tragedy unfolding in Syria.”

He saw footage of al-Assad’s forces “shooting at civilians fleeing over the border,” Hague wrote on Facebook. “I met men and women who had walked for months to escape the fighting. I spoke to women from Homs, whose houses had been destroyed, their homes looted and members of their family killed.

“It left me in no doubt that the U.N. Security Council must pass an urgent Chapter VII resolution making possible globally-enforced sanctions if President Assad does not comply with Kofi Annan’s peace plan. Our diplomats in New York are working urgently on this today.”

Annan is the joint envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League.

He met Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

He called it “a very good discussion” about what to do to end the violence in Syria and bring about a political transition. “Obviously, the discussions in the Security Council regarding the resolution also came up,” Annan told reporters after the meeting. “And I would hope that the council will continue its discussions and hopefully find language that will pull everybody together for us to move forward on this critical issue.”

In New York, members of the Syrian National Council, a prominent political opposition group, told reporters that the Security Council must do more to protect people on the ground against escalating violence.

Bassma Kodmani said the SNC is ready to explore “other alternatives,” including calling on regional powers, to help protect the Syrian people if the deadlock at the Security Council persists.

She further blamed the uncertainties and division of the international community over Syria for the opposition’s inability to unify.

“If you want unity of one of voice of the Syrian opposition you will not get it, but if you want a joint position on what the objective is, I think we have it,” she said.

But even as al-Assad’s regime faced growing pressure to halt the violence, state-run TV gave Syrians a very different picture.

Pro-military videos showed Syrian soldiers in a glowing light — in a couple of cases literally.

Soldiers were shown smiling, kissing children, marching in sync and carrying out numerous exercises. Some members of the military were showing using martial arts to chop flaming bricks. Others jumped through flaming hoops.

Syrian state-run media consistently blames violence in the country on “armed terrorist groups.”

Since the crisis began in March 2011, the United Nations estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed in the violence; opposition activists say more than 15,000 have died.
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