JUDY WOODRUFF: Syrian rebels dealt a stunning blow to the Assad government today, a bombing that wiped out part of the country's power elite. The attack in Damascus raised new fears in Washington and other capitals.
The bomb exploded in a meeting of Syrian Cabinet and top security officers, the most serious assault yet on the core of the regime, among the dead, the defense minister, Daoud Rajha, and President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who was the widely-feared deputy defense minister. One other senior official was killed, too.
State television confirmed the killings and blamed unspecified terrorists.
IMRAN AL-ZOUBI, Syrian Information Minister (through translator): The two field marshals today, the defense minister and deputy defense minister, are not the first of our martyrs, although we hope that they are the last.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The opposition Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility. A member of the Syrian National Council, the political arm of the resistance, said it showed the expanded scope of the rebellion, after 17 months of what is now a civil war.
OMAR SHAWAF, Syrian National Council: It sends a message to the regime that the hands of the Syrian people and the Syrian Free Syrian Army can reach anyone inside Damascus and even Bashar Assad itself. He is not safe anymore.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The Syrian president's whereabouts were unknown. But fallout from the bombing was felt far beyond Damascus.
In Egypt, the head of the Arab League said the consequences were not yet clear.
NABIL ELARABY, Arab League Secretary-General (through translator): What happened in Syria today will have a huge effect on the situation in Syria, and at this point we do not know the repercussions. The fear is that the violence escalates. We look for a peaceful transition into a free democratic Syria.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For now, peace seems far away. Instead, the fighting that has engulfed much of the country has now exploded in Damascus. The Free Syrian Army calls its offensive there 'Damascus Volcano.'
In the past four days, Syrian opposition activists have been reporting and showing pitched battles in sectors of the city, tanks in the streets, even helicopter airstrikes on neighborhoods. At the same time, there have been several more high-level defections by senior Syrian military officers and diplomats.
Even so, the stability of the regime remains difficult to determine.
In Washington today, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta registered growing U.S. concern over the situation.
LEON PANETTA, U.S. Defense Secretary: The violence there has only gotten worse and the loss of lives has only increased, which tells us that this is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In particular, Panetta pointed to Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons. According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, the regime has begun to move nerve agents and other weapons from secure facilities.
LEON PANETTA: It's something that we have made very clear to them, that they have a responsibility to safeguard their chemical sites, and that we will hold them responsible should anything happen with regards to those sites.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In the meantime, the U.N. Security Council delayed a vote on extending the observer mission to Syria and possibly approving new sanctions at the request of the special envoy, Kofi Annan.
And while the world pondered what may come next, cries of "God is great" echoed in the streets of Syria as word spread of the bombing in Damascus.