The defense minister, his deputy and a vice president were all killed in the blast but it is unclear if Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was nearby. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

With Syrian rebels entering the country’s capital on Thursday, President Bashar Assad had reportedly left Damascus and was directing the response to the assassination of three top lieutenants.

Assad was in the coastal city of Latakia, directing the response to the bombing that killed his brother-in-law and two other key military figures Wednesday, opposition sources and a Western diplomat told Reuters.

“Our information is that he is at his palace in Latakia and that he may have been there for days,” said a senior opposition figure, who declined to be named, according to Reuters.

Latakia province is home to several towns inhabited by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect.

An official source told Reuters that the president, who has made no statement or public appearance since Wednesday’s stunning bomb attack on a crisis meeting of defense and security chiefs, was still commanding operations from his Damascus office.

The defense minister, his deputy and a vice president were all killed in the blast but it is unclear if Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was nearby. NBC’s Richard Engel reports.

A diplomat, who is following events in Syria, told Reuters: “Everyone is looking now at how well Assad can maintain the command structure. The killings yesterday were a huge blow, but not fatal.”

Meanwhile, rebel fighters streamed into Damascus convinced that they could take over the capital and isolate the government.

“Taking Damascus will be a moral blow to Assad’s regime,” Ali Bakran, a commander of a Free Syrian Army brigade that operates out Jabal al-Zawiya, told NBC News.

Rebels from his region has sent about 1,000 fighters to Damascus over the last two days, he said.

Syrian rebels have kept up pressure following the assassinations, fighting loyalist troops within sight of the presidential palace and near government headquarters, residents said.

Residents said there was no let-up in the heaviest fighting — now in its fifth day — to hit the Syrian capital in a 16-month revolt against Assad, whose family has dominated the pivotal Arab country for 42 years.

The battles encroached within sight of the presidential palace, near the security headquarters where Wednesday’s emergency meeting was held, with videos showing clouds of smoke rising over the skyline.

The U.N. Security Council put off a scheduled vote on a Syria resolution until Thursday and U.S. President Barack Obama telephoned President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Assad’s main ally, to try to persuade Moscow to drop support for him.

The bombing that killed Assad’s brother-in-law, defense minister and a top general triggered fierce army retaliation with artillery unleashed on rebels massed in several districts and armed mostly with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

A video from overnight in Damascus’ neighborhood of Sayed Zainab shows a makeshift clinic in a house, with blankets and medical supplies strewn all over the floor and a man shouting directions on a megaphone as men carry in mutilated bodies on sheets.

Some of the bodies were blackened, perhaps from a blast or a fire. Others were blown apart apparently by high explosive.

Residents in the Midan and Kafr Souseh districts reported constant blasts and heavy gunfire as helicopter gunships buzzed overhead.

“The shelling did not stop all night. Shelling could be heard in all the city. It was loud. There were also sounds of clashes. Not many people are venturing out. I can’t even find a taxi, so I’m waiting for somebody to pick us up,” a resident in Damascus told Reuters, speaking by telephone.

“Everyone in the neighborhood is arming themselves. Some with machineguns, some with shotguns. Some even just with knives. And whoever doesn’t have anything just tries to stay awake and stay alert as much as they can,” said another resident, speaking by phone from the Midan area.

Source: NBC News


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