The information was impossible to confirm independently, but activists posted videos of what appeared to be three bodies in the streets of the suburb of Qadam.
“The situation is getting worse by the second,” said a resident of another suburb, Qaboun, who was contacted via Skype and asked not to be identified because he fears for his safety. “Armed people are walking in the streets.”
People were fleeing some of the worst-hit neighborhoods, including the flash point Midan district. In the Shaghour neighborhood of the historic Old City, residents carrying knives and sticks were in the streets to defend against a threatened attack by similarly armed residents from a nearby Shiite neighborhood, but community leaders calmed the situation.
There were also widespread reports of accelerating defections from within the security forces around the country, although they also could not be confirmed. Abu Emad, an activist in Homs, said that at least 250 soldiers had abandoned their posts in the Old City, long a battleground between rebels and government forces. But he also said government forces based on the periphery of Homs had launched an intensified bombardment against the area.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported shelling in a number of areas Thursday, as residents fled parts of the Mezzeh neighborhood after troops surrounded it and clashed with local rebels, daminging one helicopter and disabling three military vehicles, according to the Associated Press.
Major blow to regime
Those killed in the bombing included Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha; Hassan Turkmani, a former minister of defense who headed the regime’s crisis management cell; and Shawkat, who was the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian military.
The three were attending a meeting of the central command unit for crisis management — a special cell composed of about a dozen of the country's top security chiefs established last year to oversee the crackdown on the uprising — at the National Security Building in the closely guarded Rawda neighborhood, home to many embassies, including the shuttered U.S. mission.
The official news agency SANA said that Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar and a man identified as Lt. Gen. Hisham, assumed to be the national security chief, Hisham Bakhtiar, were in stable condition after being injured.
The death of Shawkat, who was married to Assad’s elder sister Bushra, was an especially significant blow to the regime because of his standing as a member of the Assad family and as a leading figure in the effort to crush the uprising, Azm said.
“Assef Shawkat was not only a very close member of the Assad family but also a forceful and powerful member of the inner decision-making circle,” he said.
“He was well known for being brutal, effective and decisive, and he was at the forefront of the fight against the uprising.”
The circumstances of the attack remain unclear, however. The pro-government Al-Dunia TV station reported that it was a suicide attack. But commanders in the Free Syrian Army, which asserted responsibility, said a bomb had been planted inside the meeting room and was detonated remotely.
According to Col. Malik Kurdi, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, the operation had been planned more than two months ago, and rebels seized the opportunity to act following the battles that erupted in the streets of Damascus over the past four days. “The circumstances were convenient and morale was high,” said Kurdi, speaking from a refugee camp in southern Turkey.
A separate claim of responsibility for the bombing came in a Facebook posting from a little-known group calling itself the Brigade of Islam.
Dehghanpisheh reported from Beirut. Suzan Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut and a special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.