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June 25, 2017

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Syria burns, spy chief fourth bomb victim

BEIRUT--A fourth member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle died on Friday from wounds sustained in a bomb attack this week and his forces fought to recapture border posts and parts of Damascus from rebels targeting the heart of his power.

As refugees flooded across Syria's borders and banks were reported to have run out of cash, Russia's envoy to Paris added to a sense Assad's days were numbered by saying he had accepted he would have to leave power.

Syrian state television flashed a government statement saying the comments were "completely devoid of truth" while Russia's Paris embassy said they had been taken out of context.

Assad, 46, has not spoken since Wednesday's attack on a meeting of his high command and only appeared on Thursday to appoint a new defense minister to replace one of the assassinated men.

The next few days will be critical in determining whether Assad's government can recover from the devastating blow of the bombing of Assad's inner circle which destroyed its aura of invulnerability.

Syrian state television said a funeral ceremony for the defense minister, his deputy — Assad's brother-in-law — and a senior general was held on Friday in Damascus, without mentioning whether Assad attended.

It also said Syria's intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar had died of wounds from the attack on Assad's close-knit six-man "crisis unit," in charge of suppressing the 16-month uprising threatening four decades of Assad's Alawite family rule.

In the latest violence in Damascus, rebels set fire to a military barracks which opposition sources said was used as a training ground for shabbiha militiamen loyal to Assad after a two-day siege, a witness said.

"The Saiqa (thunderbolt) barracks is now on fire. About 80 shabbiha and army who have been defending it have withdrawn," Abu Ilizz, a resident of the district adjacent to the Council of Ministers building, said by telephone.

'Fortress Damascus' in Turmoil

The conflict has changed from an uprising in poor towns and villages to a civil war that has reached the capital.

It has become a proxy conflict pitting Russia and Shiite Muslim Iran, which back Assad, against Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, which are arming and funding the Sunni rebels.

The rebels include the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors joined by Sunni youths, as well as al-Qaida style Jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and local pro-democracy Sunni liberals.

Clashes raged in Damascus in a sixth day in the ancient city and at least three people were killed when Syrian army helicopters fired rockets at the southeastern neighborhood of Saida Zeinab, opposition activists said.

Clashes were fiercest overnight in the sprawling Mezzeh district, where rebels appear to be sustaining attacks on many security compounds located there, residents said.

State television said Syrian forces had cleared the central district of Midan of "mercenaries and terrorists." Opposition activists and rebel sources confirmed on Friday that they had withdrawn after coming under heavy bombardment.

"It is a tactical withdrawal. We are still in Damascus," Abu Omar, a rebel commander, said by telephone.

Turkey and Iraq

Another Syrian general fled to Turkey overnight, along with four colonels and 17 lower-ranking officers, a Turkish official said, bringing the number of generals sheltering there to 22.

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