BEIRUT - Bashar Assad attended the swearing-in of his new defense minister Thursday, Syrian state TV said, the first sign of the president since an audacious rebel attack the day before struck at the heart of his regime and killed three senior officials.
Government forces struck back against rebels with attack helicopters and shelling in a fifth straight day of clashes in Damascus. The inability of the military to control the clashes in the capital against lightly armed rebel forces and the deadly bombing of a high-level security meeting a day earlier made Assad's hold on power look increasingly tenuous.
The whereabouts of Assad, his wife and their three young children have been a mystery since the attack that killed his brother-in-law and his defense minister. Assad does not appear in public frequently, and his absence was notable following such a serious blow his inner circle.
The state TV announcement appeared aimed at sending the message that Assad is alive, well and still firmly in charge. It said Assad wished the new defense minister good luck but it did not say where the swearing-in took place. Nor did it show any photos or video of the ceremony, as it usually would.
Thousands of Syrians streamed across the Syrian border into Lebanon, fleeing as fighting in the capital entered its fifth straight day, witnesses said. Residents near the Masnaa crossing point -- about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Damascus -- said hundreds of private cars as well as taxis and buses were ferrying people across.
Wednesday's rebel bomb attack struck the harshest blow yet to Assad's regime. The White House said it showed Assad was "losing control" of Syria.
Syrian TV confirmed the deaths of Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, 65, a former army general and the most senior government official to be killed in the rebels' battle to oust Assad; Gen. Assef Shawkat, 62, the deputy defense minister who is married to Assad's elder sister, Bushra, and is one of the most feared figures in the inner circle; and Hassan Turkmani, 77, a former defense minister who died of his wounds in the hospital.
Also wounded were Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar and Maj. Gen. Hisham Ikhtiar, who heads the National Security Department. State TV said both were in stable condition.
Rebels claimed responsibility, saying they targeted the room where the top government security officials in charge of crushing the revolt were meeting.
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of nearly 300 unarmed U.N. observers in Syria, condemned the violence and encouraged a diplomatic solution, which appears increasingly out of reach. He spoke just hours before a planned U.N. Security council vote on whether to renew the mission's mandate, which expires Friday, and impose new sanctions on the Damascus regime.
"It pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria," Mood said in Damascus.
The U.N. vote had been scheduled for Wednesday, but was postponed after key Western nations and Russia failed to agree the text of a resolution aimed ending the escalating violence. Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, has stood by the Syrian regime and vowed to veto any measures that could lead to international military intervention.
In Thursday's fighting in Damascus, government forces fired heavy machine guns and mortars in battles with rebels in a number of neighborhoods in the capital, the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Adding to the confusion, Syria's state-run TV warned citizens that gunmen were disguising themselves in military uniforms to carry out attacks.
"Gunmen are wearing Republican Guard uniforms in the neighborhoods of Tadamon, Midan, Qaa and Nahr Aisha, proving that they are planning attacks and crimes," SANA said.
Many residents were fleeing Damascus' Mezzeh neighborhood after troops surrounded it and posted snipers on rooftops while exchanging gunfire with opposition forces.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said rebels damaged one helicopter and disabled three military vehicles.
Rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades at a police station in the Jdeidet Artouz area, killing at least five officers, the group said.
Activist claims could not be independently verified. The Syrian government bars most media from working independently in the country.
The unarmed observers were authorized for 90 days to monitor a cease-fire and implementation of Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, but the truce never took hold and the monitors have found themselves largely locked down because of the persistent violence.
Mood said the observers "will become relevant when the political process takes off."
Syria's 16-month crisis began with protests inspired by the Arab Spring wave of revolutions, but it has evolved into a civil war, with rebels fighting to topple Assad.
Activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, most of them civilians. The Syrian government says more than 4,000 security officers have been killed. It does not given numbers of civilian dead.
09/09/2012 12:25 PM EDT
Syria Blasts Aleppo By Air
09/05/2012 7:50 AM EDT
Syrian City In Flames
08/25/2012 1:45 PM EDT
Lebanese Pilgrim Freed
Hussein Ali Omar, 60, one of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims that Syrian rebels have been holding for three months in Syria, hugs his mother, right, upon arrival at his house in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, 2012. Syrian rebels freed Omar on Saturday in a move aimed at easing cross-border tensions after a wave of abductions of Syrian citizens in Lebanon. The Shiite pilgrims were abducted May 22 after crossing into Syria from Turkey on their way to Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
08/24/2012 12:22 PM EDT
This image made from video and released by Shaam News Network and accessed Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, purports to show the funeral of children in Daraya, near Damascus, Syria. Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopters broke into a Damascus suburb on Thursday following two days of shelling and intense clashes as part of a widening offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces to seize control of parts of the capital and surrounding areas from rebel fighters, activists said. At least 15 people were killed in the offensive on Daraya, only a few miles (kilometers) southwest of Damascus. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network SNN via AP video)
08/24/2012 11:05 AM EDT
Lebanon Sees Heaviest Clashes In Months
Clashes between Assad supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime killed two people in Lebanon on Friday, the Associated Press reports. 17 people were injured.
The AP gives more context:
Syria was in virtual control of its smaller neighbor for many years, posting tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, before withdrawing under pressure in 2005. Even without soldiers on the ground, Syria remains influential, and its civil war has stirred longstanding tensions that have lain under Lebanon's surface.
Read more on HuffPost World.
08/24/2012 11:02 AM EDT
A Sunni gunman fires a gun during clashes that erupted between pro and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. The latest round of fighting first erupted on Monday in northern Lebanon and at least 15 have been killed in Tripoli this week and more than 100 have been wounded in fighting that is a spillover from Syria's civil war. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
08/24/2012 11:00 AM EDT
Refugee Numbers Soar
@ KenRoth :
UN reports 200,000 #Syria refugees, 30,000 in past week alone. Many more internally displaced not counted. http://t.co/BaM6u59j
08/23/2012 2:00 PM EDT
Syrian boy Musataf Alhafiz, 11, who fled his home with his family due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, carries his brother Saif, 9 months, while he and others take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian town of Azaz, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. Thousands of Syrians who have been displaced by the country's civil war are struggling to find safe shelter while shelling and airstrikes by government forces continue. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
08/23/2012 12:09 PM EDT
Heaviest Bombardment This Month
Helicopter gunships shelled Damascus on Wednesday as Syrian security forces intensified their assault on the capital. Activists report that at least 47 people were killed.
"The whole of Damascus is shaking with the sound of shelling," a woman in the neighborhood of Kfar Souseh told Reuters.
Read more on HuffPost World.