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Assad¿s wife reportedly flees to Russia as Syrian rebels land deadly blow and battle for Damascus begins

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By Rob Preece

PUBLISHED: 05:54 EST, 19 July 2012 | UPDATED: 05:54 EST, 19 July 2012

Running away: Asma Assad has reportedly fled Damascus following a devastating suicide bomb attack which killed three of her husband's top security chiefs

Running away: Asma Assad has reportedly fled Damascus following a devastating suicide bomb attack which killed three of her husband's top security chiefs

The British-born wife of Syria's embattled president Bashar al-Assad has fled to Russia after rebels killed three of his top security chiefs in a devastating suicide bomb attack, it was reported today.

Rumours of Asma Assad's departure swirled around the capital Damascus within hours of the blast, which claimed the lives of the president's brother-in-law and other top officials.

The president himself, who was reportedly wounded, was believed to be in the coastal city of Latakia, directing a response to yesterday's attack as violence between rebels and pro-government forces intensified in the capital.

There were signs today that the 16-month uprising had reached a potentially pivotal stage, with rebel assassins reaching Assad's inner circle for the first time and soldiers apparently defecting en masse.

Russia, which has supported Assad, said a 'decisive battle' had begun in Syria but supporting the opposition was a 'dead-end policy'.

Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, added: 'Assad will not go on his own and our western partners don’t know what to do about that.'

Loud explosions, gunfire and attacks by helicopters were reported in Damascus yesterday, and it was suggested that troops had been issued with gas masks, raising fears that chemical weapons could be used.

Earlier, Syrian state television confirmed the deaths of Assef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law and the deputy head of the armed forces, as well as defence minister Dawoud Rahja and crisis management chief Hassan Turkmani.

Shawkat, who was married to Assad's sister Bushra, was one of the most feared members of the president's inner circle.

Destruction: Damaged buildings in Duma, near Damascus, after violence on the day rebels penetrated President Assad's inner circle

Destruction: Damaged buildings in Duma, near Damascus, after violence on the day rebels penetrated President Assad's inner circle

Other leading government figures were wounded in the suicide bomb attack.

Interior minister Mohammad Shaar and intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar were among those being treated in the capital's al-Shami hospital.

Syrian state television said foreign-backed 'terrorists' had carried out the attack.

The country's armed forces said in a statement that Syria was 'determined to confront all forms of terrorism and chop off any hand that harms national security'.

'IT'S TIME TO GO,' PM TELLS ASSAD

David Cameron today called on Bashar al-Assad to fall on his sword and increased pressure on Russian leader Vladimir Putin to back UN sanctions against Syria.

Speaking during a visit to the Afghan capital Kabul, Mr Cameron said: 'I have a very clear message for President Assad. It is time for him to go.

'It is time for transition in the regime. If there isn't transition it's quite clear there's going to be civil war.'

The United Nations is expected to vote later today on a new British-crafted Syria resolution after a last-minute delay failed to get key Western nations and Russia to agree on measures to end the violence.

The resolution threatens non-military sanctions against President Assad's government if he does not withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated areas within 10 days.

It is tied to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict.

Mr Cameron said: 'My message to President Putin is it's time for the UN security council to pass clear and tough messages about sanctions.'

Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House in London, told the Guardian: 'The opposition has hit the jackpot.

'The consequences are too big to digest. It may provoke more violence by the regime. Everyone is revising their calculations.

'People will be deciding whether to defect or not and the Russians will be wondering if they have backed the wrong horse.

The Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition group, and an Islamist group called Liwa al-Islam have both claimed responsibility for the attack.

Riad al-Asaad, commander of the Free Syrian Army, said: 'God willing, this is the beginning of the end of the regime.

'Hopefully, Bashar will be next.'

Analysts have warned that the assassinations and the reported departure of Ms Assad - a graduate of King's College, London and a former investment banker - would not bring the immediate collapse of the regime.

But Emile Hokayem, an analyst at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the Financial Times that the attack showed Assad had been decisively weakened.

He said it would shake many within the regime who had been waiting to see which side was winning, potentially bringing more defections.

Members of Assad's Alawite community admitted the attack was a serious blow.

'This will not be the end of the regime in any way,' one said, but it is serious and people are traumatised at the fact that the opposition managed to assassinate these people.

'But government supporters want the government to be firm and show it is still in control. The Syrian government is not usually impulsive.'

Rubble: Syrians inspect destroyed houses in Dael, in the southern province of Daraa, as reports suggested that the uprising had reached a potentially pivotal point

Rubble: Syrians inspect destroyed houses in Dael, in the southern province of Daraa, as reports suggested that the uprising had reached a potentially pivotal point

'Decisive battle': Pressure is increasing on President Assad as violence continues in Syrian cities

'Decisive battle': Pressure is increasing on President Assad as violence continues in Syrian cities

Death: Mourners carry the coffin of a victim killed in violence in Dael in the southern province of Daraa

Death: Mourners carry the coffin of a victim killed in violence in Dael in the southern province of Daraa

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