Syrian forces and rebels have clashed in several neighborhoods of Damascus, and helicopters are reported to have fired on targets from the air, after at least three top government officials died in a bomb attack Wednesday.
Syrian state television says a bomb exploded during a high-level meeting at the National Security building in the capital, killing Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian General Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister, is also reported to have died of injuries from the bombing.
Syrian Bombing Victims Served in Top Military Roles
Defense Minister Daoud Rajha, the most senior government official killed in the Syrian conflict. The 65-year-old former army general also was the most senior Christian government official in Syria. Appointed last August, he was one of the prominent minority figures used by President Assad's government as an example of diversity in the military and security services otherwise dominated by Alawites. The attack on General Rajha is the first assassination of a prominent official in the 16-month uprising against Assad.
Assef Shawkat, President Assad's brother in-law, was a major general and deputy defense minister, as well as deputy chief of staff of security. Part of Mr. Assad’s inner family circle, he was married to the president's elder sister, Bushra.
General Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister, was responsible for crisis operations. A Sunni Muslim, he added sectarian diversity to Syria's military-intelligence establishment, which is dominated by Assad's Alawite community.
The explosion also seriously wounded other senior government officials, including Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar, the former commander of the military police.
The rebel Free Syrian Army has claimed responsibility for the bombing. Reuters news agency reports the rebel group Liwa al-Islam also claimed responsibility.
The Syrian military has named Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fahed al-Jasem el-Freij as the new defense minister and vowed to "continue fighting terrorism."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
says close to 100 people were killed in anti-government unrest across Syria on Wednesday, including 18 in Damascus.
Security Council Postpones Resolution Vote
The United Nations Security Council has postponed a vote on a resolution that would extend its observer mission in Syria.
Council President Nestor Osorio, Colombia's U.N. ambassador, says the vote has been pushed back to Thursday. He says diplomats are hoping for an agreement that is acceptable to all sides.
The Council has been divided about whether a new resolution should include a threat of sanctions against President Assad's government. Britain, France, Germany and the United States are pushing for a 45-day renewal of the mission in Syria along with a threat of sanctions.
Russia has promised to veto that version. Its proposal calls for a longer extension of the mission, but no sanctions. China has backed Russia in blocking previous Western-backed resolutions calling for tough action on Syria.
The mission's mandate expires Friday.
U.S. Reacts to Bombing
, Imposes Sanctions
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the bombing shows Syria's crisis is "rapidly spinning out of control."
The White House said the attack made it clear that President Assad was losing control, violence was increasing instead of decreasing and the international community needs to come together to support a political transition.
Just hours after the attack, the U.S. announced it was widening sanctions on Syria.
The Treasury Department announced it had imposed penalties on 29 Syrian officials and five companies with ties to Syria's weapons program.
The sanctions will freeze any assets the officials may have in U.S. territories and prohibit Americans from doing business with them.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the bombing indicates the situation in Syria is "deteriorating rapidly," while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the attack shows there is an "urgent" need for a new United Nations resolution on Syria.
France said the attack underscores the "urgent" need to "find a political transition."
Russia said a "decisive battle" is underway in Syria. However, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that adopting a U.N. resolution with sanctions would amount to direct support of rebels.
Iran condemned the bombing and urged foreign powers against what it calls interference in Syria’s domestic affairs. According to the state-run IRNA news agency, Iran’s foreign ministry said foreign “interference” and weapons shipments into Syria have played a role in what it called “terrorist moves in the country.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met Wednesday with Chinese leaders in Beijing, where he expressed hope that the Security Council will unite to help end the bloodshed in Syria and help the country's people begin working toward a Syrian-led transition.
"[I am] deeply concerned and sometimes I cannot sleep when I think of so many people being killed every day, even today and yesterday, hundred and 200 people have been killed," said Ban. "This must stop at any cost so that Syrian people can commence immediately [a] dialogue for political resolution of this issue, reflecting the genuine aspiration and genuine needs of people."
China's official People's Daily
newspaper ran a commentary Tuesday rejecting foreign intervention in the Syrian crisis.
Syrian Government Launches Crackdown
Syria’s State-run SANA news agency says armed forces units “chased down terrorists” who had “infiltrated” the Midan neighborhood in Damascus, on Wednesday, killing and arresting a “large number of them.”
The report also says clashes erupted in the flashpoint Homs region after an “armed terrorist group” attacked security forces in several villages.
The Syrian government has blamed much of the anti-government related violence on armed groups or terrorists.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.