DAMASCUS, July 18 (Xinhua) -- The Syrian administration was hit in the very core Wednesday when a blast ripped through a security compound hosting a meeting of top officials and cronies to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The blast left three senior officials killed and some others injured.
Syrian Defense Minister Dawood Rajha, and his Deputy, Assef Shawkat were killed in the bombing as Assistant Vice-President Hassan Turkmani died hours later of serious wounds. Shawkat is also the president's brother-in-law.
Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar was also injured by the blast.
Sources told Xinhua that the meeting was attended by many high- profile figures, who are responsible for working out solutions to the crisis.
The circumstances of the blast remain murky, as the state-TV said it was a suicide bombing while the broad-based opposition said the blast was controlled remotely, by an insider who planted the explosives inside the building and detonated it remotely.
Right after the blast, security and army forces beefed up presence and fanned out around the area.
The blast is considered as a tough blow to Assad's administration, which has managed to hold together firmly during the 16-month unrest.
The ministry of defense pledged tough response for the bold attack.
In a statement carried by the state-TV, the ministry pledged to eradicate the armed groups and their hideouts, adding that the recent attack will only strengthen the forces' resolution to eliminate the terrorists across the country.
The leader of the rebel Free Syrian Army, defected Col. Riad Asaad, claimed responsibility for the attack and said his militia will carry on more attacks.
Meanwhile, Information Minister Omran Zoubi said the morale of the Syrian army is high, refuting media claims circulated on Arab TV which said that the spirit of the Syrian army is low and that many defections have happened after the blast.
He said that Syria is capable of retaliation, adding that what happened is the work of the countries which support the armed groups in Syria with money and arms. Just a couple of hours after the blast, a new defense minister was appointed by Assad.
As night started to fall, almost all the shops of the capital closed their shutters and the city appeared deserted except for the sounds of firefights and the hovering helicopter gunships, which have been apparently taking part in the wide-scale offensive the government has launched to regain control of rebellious neighborhoods and suburbs of Damascus.
The capital has been witnessing a surge in clashes between the government troops and the armed rebels since Sunday.
The rebel Free Syria Army said the "greater battle" of Damascus has already begun and they have used a new tactic to launch a number of simultaneous attacks in many areas and reportedly set tires ablaze to distract the Syrian army's attention.
Witnesses said heavy clashes took place in the areas of Kafr Souseh, Midan, Tadamun, Nahr Aisha and others.The intensity of the clashes have disturbed the nights of the capital, which has been bustling with people roaming its streets till dawn.
Internationally, Russia strongly condemned the brazen attack in Syria, considering the attack another attempt to destabilize the situation in the unrest-stricken country.
Also, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday the situation in Syria was fast "spinning out of control," and called for more international pressure on Damascus.
In a joint press conference with visiting British counterpart Philip Hammond, he said the violence in the Middle East country had "only gotten worse and the loss of lives has only increased," leading to a situation "that is rapidly spinning out of control."
Meanwhile, the United States imposed sanctions against 29 senior Syrian officials on Wednesday. Syria's ministers of finance, justice and health and the governor of the central bank were among these officials targeted by the U.S. Department of Treasury.
Meanwhile, witnesses said the Syrian troops have ramped up attacks on opposition strongholds, while pro-government media said some 30 armed men were killed Wednesday in the Midan neighborhood.
The severity of the capital's clashes have added a heavy blow to the 16-month bloody unrest, as the state media is calling on people not to listen to media fabrications aiming at undermining the current administration.