Syria's rebel commander says his forces carried out an attack in Damascus today that killed President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law, also the country's deputy defence minister, as well as Defence Minister Dawoud Rajiha and others, but he denies it was a suicide bombing.
Riad al-Asaad was responding to a report by state-run TV that the attack on the National Security building during a meeting of cabinet ministers and senior security officials was a suicide bombing. He said on the phone from his headquarters in Turkey that rebel forces planted a bomb inside a room where senior government officials were meeting Wednesday.
The rebel leader said all those who carried out the operation are safe.
"God willing, this is the beginning of the end of the regime," al-Asaad told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
"Hopefully Bashar will be next."
Among those killed in the blast were Gen. Assef Shawkat, among the most feared figures in Assad's inner circle, who was married to Assad's elder sister, Bushra.
Rajha, 65, a former army general, is the most senior government official to be killed in the Syrian civil war as rebels battle to oust Assad.
An authority with direct knowledge of the situation said Hassan Turkmani, a former Syrian defence minister, also died in the bombing. The authority asked that his name and profession not be used for fear of reprisals.
Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar was also wounded, officials said.
The capital has seen four straight days of clashes pitting government troops against rebels, who are trying to bring down the regime by force. The fighting is an unprecedented challenge to government rule in the tightly controlled capital.
The latest deaths will resonate with Syria's minority Christian population, who make up about 10 per cent of Syria's population and have generally stood by the regime.
Christians say they are particularly vulnerable to the violence sweeping the country of 22 million people, and they are fearful that Syria will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Muslim groups.
Damascus-based activist Omar al-Dimashki said Republican Guard troops surrounded the nearby al-Shami Hospital where some officials were taken for treatment.
Facing increasingly chaotic violence, the UN Security Council was scheduled to vote later Wednesday on a new resolution aimed at pressuring the Syrian regime to comply with a peace plan.
But Russia remained at loggerheads with the U.S. and its European allies over any mention of sanctions and Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict in Syria.
Besides a government crackdown, rebel fighters are launching increasingly deadly attacks on regime targets, and several massive suicide attacks this year suggest al-Qaeda or other extremists are joining the fray.
Activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed since the uprising began last year.
The state-run news agency SANA reported that Wednesday's blast was aimed at the National Security building, a headquarters for one of Syria's intelligence branches and less than 500 metres from the U.S. Embassy.
Police had cordoned off the area, and journalists were banned from approaching the site.
Earlier Wednesday, SANA said soldiers were chasing rebels in the Midan neighbourhood, causing "great losses among them."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said army helicopters attacked the neighbourhoods of Qaboun and Barzeh.
Russia opposed to sanctions
Diplomacy so far has failed to stop the bloodshed, and there appeared to be little hope that the UN's most powerful body would unite behind a plan.
The key stumbling block is the Western demand for a resolution threatening non-military sanctions and tied to Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict in Syria.
Russia is adamantly opposed to any mention of sanctions or Chapter 7. After Security Council consultations late Tuesday on a revised draft resolution pushed by Moscow, Russia's deputy UN ambassador Alexander Pankin said these remain "red lines."
On Wednesday, Russia accused the West of inciting the Syrian opposition after the latest bombing, arguing that support for the rebels was a dead end that would lead to more bloodshed.
"Instead of calming the opposition down, some of our partners are inciting it to go on," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.
Supporting the Syrian opposition "is a dead-end policy, because Assad is not leaving voluntarily," he said.
Russia has said it will veto any Chapter 7 resolution, but council diplomats said there is still a possibility of last-minute negotiations.
U.S., U.K. urge action to end violence
But both U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague and U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said ending the violence is long overdue.
Hague said the latest bombing confirms an urgent need for a Chapter 7 resolution.
“The situation in Syria is clearly deteriorating," said Hague in a release Wednesday. "All the members of the UN Security Council have a responsibility to put their weight behind the enforcement of joint special envoy Kofi Annan's plan to end the violence.
“We call on all parties to refrain from violence, and for the Security Council to shoulder its responsibilities."
Panetta said the U.S. is concerned the escalating violence is "rapidly spinning out of control."
Panetta told a Pentagon news conference Wednesday "it is more essential than ever" that the U.S. and the international community work through the UN to pressure Assad to step down and begin a peaceful transition.
With files from CBC News