A deadly attack on top Syrian officials Wednesday delivered the harshest blow yet to President Bashar al-Assad's regime, bringing the bloodshed into his inner circle, and even his family.
Four top officials were killed in an explosion at a national security building in Damascus, and some other people were wounded, state TV reported.
Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha; Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat -- al-Assad's brother-in-law; Hasan Turkmani, al-Assad's security adviser and assistant vice president, and Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar were killed, the state TV reports said.
The attack, during a meeting of ministers and security officials, was coordinated by several rebel brigades in Damascus, said the deputy head of the opposition Free Syrian Army, Col. Malek al-Kurdi.
The government described it as a suicide bombing. But al-Kurdi said a remote control was used to detonate an explosive device planted inside the meeting room.
Video from a Damascus suburb showed Syrians rejoicing after news spread of the bombing.
Al-Assad quickly named Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij as defense minister, state-run news agency SANA said.
The attack represents "a massive psychological blow to the regime" and will accelerate al-Assad's "demise," said Anthony Skinner, an analyst with the think tank Maplecroft.
It could suggest that, after a 16-month relentless uprising, "the regime itself is crumbling," said Rime Allaf, an analyst with Chatham House.
Events in Syria show "a real escalation in fighting," said U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
It "tells us that this is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control, and for that reason it's extremely important that the international community, working with other countries that have concerns in that area, have to bring maximum pressure on Assad to do what's right, and to step down and to allow for that peaceful transition. "
The attack came as violence increased in the capital. Loud explosions and heavy gunfire echoed through the city Wednesday, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.
With the Syrian government restricting access to the country by foreign journalists, there was no immediate way to confirm reports on the blast.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said initial reports indicate a car bomb caused an "intense explosion" in Damascus.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zubi, speaking on state TV, vowed that those behind the attack will be held accountable, even if they are outside the country.
The attackers targeted a committee that deals not only with security matters but all sorts of problems facing Syrians, he said.
He also insisted that those trying to divide the army are failing. "This army has not been divided," he said.
But increasing numbers of officials in the Syrian military have defected in recent days.
Two more brigadier generals fled to Turkey overnight, bringing the number of Syrian generals in Turkey to 20, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said.
Top Syrian Officials Killed, Major Blow To al-Assad's Regime
Outrage over Syrian massacre (CNN)