Syrian rebels attack government HQ in Damascus

An image grab taken from a video uploaded on YouTube on July 18, 2012 shows smoke billowing from a municipality building in the Al-Hajar al-Aswad district of the Syrian capital Damascus during clashes between Syrian forces and armed rebels (AFP Photo/YouTube)
Syrian rebels attacked the government headquarters in the capital Damascus in the fifth straight day of violence. Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad put an end to rumors of his whereabouts by swearing in his new defense minister.

At least one person has reportedly been killed in the fighting in the Ikhlas neighborhood adjacent to the Council of Ministers.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the opposition damaged one helicopter and disabled three military vehicles.

Fighting also raged in the al-Midan and Zahira neighbourhoods on Thursday, while loud explosions could be heard in Mashrou-Dumar, the rebel Syrian Local Coordination Committees said.

RT’s Maria Finoshina, who is in Damascus now, says Thursday’s clashes are the worst she has seen in weeks, with plumes of black smoke rising from the affected regions and sounds of gunfire being heard on regular basis.

“It certainly feels like a pivotal moment for the country, although it’s hard to predict at the moment where it would be moving to now,” she reports.

She adds that despite the gunfights and overall tension, life in many neighborhoods not directly affected by the fighting continues as always, especially during daylight hours. People still patronize cafes and many shops remain open, though the escalating violence is starting to take its toll.

“Those battles no longer have borders, they are spilling out into previously untouched parts of the city,” she said.

Nevertheless many in Damascus remain calm even in the face of apparent disorder, believing they will persevere no matter what trials they are currently facing. There is no panic, Finoshina says.

The Syrian capital is facing the fifth day of violence in a row. On Wednesday a bomb attack inside the national security building killed three senior officials, including the country’s defense minister.

The whereabouts of President Bashar Assad have been speculated on ever since the attack, fueling rumors that he may have been killed by the bombing as well.

It has also been speculated that Assad left the Syrian capital for the coastal city of Latakia. A Reuter’s report, which cited western diplomatic sources, claimed he may have traveled to the Mediterranean port city before the bombing.

However, Syria's state news agency and TV both reported that the President attended the swearing in of the new defense ministry, which took place in the capital Damascus.

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on July 19, 2012, shows Syrian General Fahd al-Freij (R) meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus following his swearing in ceremony as the new defence minister (AFP Photo/SANA)
A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on July 19, 2012, shows Syrian General Fahd al-Freij (R) meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus following his swearing in ceremony as the new defence minister (AFP Photo/SANA)

Rumors are also surrounding the whereabouts of Assad’s family, many of whom are believed to have fled the country.

State media deny the rumors, saying the president is in Damascus and is working as usual. He appointed a replacement to head the defense ministry hours after the high-profile assassination.

Wednesday’s attack was the first one to successfully target members of Assad’s inner circle. Three senior government and security officials were killed and several more were injured by the bomb, which was reportedly carried into a top brass meeting by a bodyguard.

The attack appears to be part of a coordinated rebel offensive in Damascus which the army has thus far failed to repel. Civilians are said to be fleeing from the city's worst-affected neighborhoods en masse, while those caught in the crossfire have tried to arm and defend themselves, media reports say.

Fears are high that the violence will quickly spin out of control, aggravating the already grave situation in the country.