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Deadly Bombing in Bulgaria; Syrian Regime Loses Several Top Members

Aired July 18, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour, reporting from Jerusalem. And tonight, two big breaking stories.

In Syria, a major blow to Bashar al-Assad's regime, a bombing killed four members of his inner circle and many details are still coming in.

But first, here in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened Iran, saying that country may have been behind a bloody terror attack on a bus full of Israeli tourists, many of them children. It happened in Bulgaria today. The explosion took place in the city of Burgas on a bus that was carrying the Israelis to a vacation resort on the Black Sea coast.

As of now, Bulgarian government officials tell CNN that at least six people are dead and at least 30 have been injured. Netanyahu reacted to the bombing with a strong statement, quote, "This is a global Iranian terror onslaught, and Israel will react firmly to it."

Dan Meridor is deputy prime minister of Israel and minister of intelligence. He is my guest, with me here tonight.

Mr. Meridor, thank you for coming in.


AMANPOUR: What is it that leads the prime minister to make such an unambiguous statement? Is he actually accusing Iran? Do you have that intelligence?

MERIDOR: We have very good indications Iran is behind this. This is the pattern they used in the recent months in Tbilisi, Georgia; in New Delhi in India; in Thailand in Bangkok. We just got somebody in Cyprus recently, in Kenya. They are after us, after Israelis, wherever they can find them. And we have good indications. We'll, of course, investigate further, that Iran is behind that story.

AMANPOUR: And when the prime minister says we will respond firmly, what does that mean? Of course, everybody think that means a military attack, because it does come in the context of these very heightened tensions between Israel and Iran over its nuclear program.

MERIDOR: Well, we'll find a way. We'll fight to catch the people who did that. It's an atrocious (ph) attack. It's against civilians, some foreign land, Bulgaria, tourists. It needs to be stopped and we'll do whatever we can with our intelligence services, finding out who did it and reacting promptly, as we should.

The Iran story of the nuclear race is a different story. It's a major story. This will shape the Middle East and the world order in the coming years. It's a very important sanctions and diplomatic campaign led by the United States, Europe and many other countries are trying to bring Iran back from its nuclear program.

We'll need to continue and heighten and strengthen the sanctions. Iran should know there is no other way but to step down from their program.

AMANPOUR: Let me go back for a moment to this attack in Bulgaria. Word is that Bulgarian officials had been approached by Israeli officials over the last, you know, period of time, and warned that something might happens. Were there good enough security measures in place for these kinds of trips by Israelis? Was there good enough checks?

MERIDOR: I can't tell. I don't have the information here. This just happened some hours ago. We had information. Iran is trying in several places to catch Israelis, kill Israelis and unfortunately, this time they succeeded. In the earlier cases, we were earlier and we didn't allow them to succeed. And we have good information and good cooperation with the Bulgarian authorities. And we'll find out who did it.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, because certainly some analysts have suggested that this uptick in attacks and attempted attacks on Israelis around the two, as you mentioned, is Iran's retaliation for what they believe to be Israeli-sponsored attacks and assassinations of their scientists.

MERIDOR: Well ,they --

AMANPOUR: Do you believe that?

MERIDOR: No, the date is very interesting. Today is exactly 18 years from the Iran Hezbollah attack on the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, exactly 18 years ago this date. This may indicate something. The Iranians were behind that one. The Argentineans caught them then, if you remember. And it's the same date that Iranian led or initiated attack we believe was carried out today in Bulgaria.

AMANPOUR: But do you believe it's because of -- there is a war, a proxy war, a direct war going on between the two countries against scientists and apparently against Israeli civilians.

MERIDOR: No, I think there is a major campaign, which is not entirely or mainly Israeli, against the Iran regime, as a regime that develops nuclear weapons, that sides with terror. You may remember in WikiLeaks how the Arab countries cried for America, stop them, even by words, how (inaudible) because the Iranians tried for the whole stability of the region, Arab countries, Israel and others.

And there is a campaign going on, Iran descendants. The American statements, the president's statements are very strong and clear about that. The secretary of state recently said something in that respect. Iran has started to feel the pressure and they act in an illegal and (inaudible) way, killing people.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe that the pressure on Iran on its nuclear program right now, the sanctions and the diplomatic track, is that enough? Do you believe the U.S. and the international community is putting enough brakes in front of Iran? Are they asking you to hold back on any military action against Iran?

MERIDOR: Well, much has been done, and I think the campaign is much clearer now. And I have no guarantee, but I tend to believe that if there is enough determination and resource and ongoing sanctions, every week that they don't give up on the nuclear program, they'll suffer more and pay more. I think there is a chance that they will listen to reason.

They are not yet there. They have lost a lot of money. They -- their currency is losing. They're under heavy pressure. And I think (inaudible) develop in the -- in the region. I think they're under pressure. But it's not enough yet and the Supreme Leader has not yet made a decision to stop the track that -- the race for nuclear weapons. They need to do that.

AMANPOUR: And again, while you've got your eye on that, the current terrorist attack, which you're blaming on Iran, or at least saying that all indications point to Iran, when the prime minister says we will respond firmly, what does he mean, physically? What will happen?

MERIDOR: Well, it's a good question. I think we need to leave it at that. I can't be more specifics. I don't have more specifics. We have to find out more, of course, about exactly how things happened. It happened some hours ago. And these things cannot be left with no response or if they'll continue.

AMANPOUR: You have been monitoring, like everybody, the incredible happenings next door in Syria. At least three, perhaps four top Assad officials -- defense, intelligence, security -- have been wiped out. You've been tracking these people or what goes on in the security establishment there. What does this mean to his grip on power, beyond the obvious?

MERIDOR: Well, it means that those people who killed -- they assassinated today got very close to his skin. It's his brother-in-law, was very close to him; his minister of defense; minister of interior and other people are very high up and very close to him. It means he'll get serious and serious every day and atrocious.

You see massacres going on, people killing one another in awful ways. It needs to be stopped. The quicker it's stopped, it's better, because in the meantime, Syria is an unstable situation and we don't want it to continue this way.

For me, there's one other angle to it, why Mr. Assad should go. Syria is the only Arab ally of Iran. Actually, so Iran, Syria and Hezbollah is a very dangerous axis. The (inaudible) Iranian helped, Iranian assisted, Iranian sustained regime of Assad is good for stability and good for peace in the end.

AMANPOUR: Dan Meridor, thank you very much for being here.

MERIDOR: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And on this remarkable day, the entire region seems to be a powder keg. When we come back, we will turn to what we've just been talking about, those shocking events in Damascus, where Assad's high command has been cut off at the knees. And the rebels have taken to the streets to celebrate. Stay with us for more of this breaking story.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back from Jerusalem, where on this program last night, my guest, Israel's vice prime minister, made an eerie prediction about the fate of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.


MOSHE YA'ALON, ISRAELI VICE-PRIME MINISTER: -- unfortunately, we are going to witness quite a long process of bloodshed. Otherwise, he might be assassinated and it could -- can happen within a day.


AMANPOUR: Well, today, assassins did penetrate Assad's inner circle and killed at least four, perhaps more of the men he depends upon to quash the uprising and keep the revolutionaries at bay. There was wild celebration near the capital and in other Syrian cities after that deadly bomb attack on the national security building in the heart of Damascus, close to Assad's presidential palace.

Syrian television has reported that the bombing was a terrorist suicide attack, but rebels say that it was a well-planned operation, a remote control bomb that was planted with the help of an insider. At this hour, Bashar al-Assad himself has not been heard from, and there is no word on where exactly he is.

Meantime, his most senior military and intelligence officials were killed, as we say, and they were: Daoud Rajha, minister of defense and the highest level casualty yet in this bloody civil war. He was also an architecture of the brutal crackdown on Syria's opposition.

Rajha was a member of Syria's minority Christian community. And Asef Shawkat, Assad's feared brother-in-law and deputy defense minister; Hassan Turkmani, the former defense minister and a close adviser of Assad, in charge of overseeing the crisis cell formed to fight the current rebellion; and Mohamed Ibrahim al-Sha'ar, the interior minister, a former general and chief of the military police.

Is this a blow from which Assad cannot recover? Listen to what the American Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta said, earlier.


LEON PANETTA, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: 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.


AMANPOUR: So we want to head straight to Damascus now, where journalist Sander van Hoorn is on the ground.

Sander, thank you for joining me. Tell me exactly what you have been able to see around that national security building.

SANDER VAN HOORN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was the most bizarre scene, if you like, obviously we weren't able to come close. Nobody has with a camera. But we were stopped in a most polite way, asked to turn around. We were driving around in the streets, and people were going on with their business as if nothing happened. Shops were open, cars were driving, people were basically chatting to each other.

Now the problem we face is that we cannot get out of the car with a microphone, let alone a camera, without a government minder. So I haven't been able to ask those people if they heard anything, if they saw anything. But nobody has given me a good explanation how it could be that only 100 meters from the site of the supposed blast people were just acting as if nothing happened.

AMANPOUR: So, Sander, did anybody hear, did you, the journalists hear any noises? Do you think there was any explosions? There's so much conflicting reporting about what actually took place.

VAN HOORN: I looked back at the clock and I deducted the time of the explosion, and I was in the hotel. So I should have been able to hear it. I didn't.

AMANPOUR: And you say people are mostly going about their business. What have you been gleaning over the last few days as you've been in Damascus and as the fighters come closer to the heart of the city? Are people panicked? Are they afraid?

VAN HOORN: They are afraid; panicked, no. I wouldn't say so. It depends really on which part of Damascus you are in. This morning I was in the northern suburbs, and there were already heavy clashes going on. We saw hundreds and hundreds of people fleeing with nothing more than plastic bags. So that's really something in that area, where people have to run for.

Now in the center of Damascus, it had been relatively quiet. Over the last couple of days I've seen anxiety arising and today there was something more. There was really people do not know what has happened around them. People are on the phone all the time, calling relatives, calling friends, where are you, are you OK? Are you still safe? Do you know what has happened because nobody seems to know.

And that is a real shift in like the heartland of Assad's support. People, if you hear a blast and blasts are ongoing as we speak, you could safely assume that it would be in one of these suburbs, which had seen recent fighting over the recent couple of days. Now people don't know any more. It might just as well be in the center. It might just as well be next to you.

AMANPOUR: Let's get back to what happened today. Obviously, there's so much that's unknown. The state television has said that these senior people were killed. But is there a possibility that there wasn't an explosion or that the explosion was so far inside the compound that it might not have been heard outside? Give us a sense of the layout of this compound.

VAN HOORN: Well, the compound in an upscale suburb with a lot of ambices (ph). The American ambassador used to live there. So it's an upscale area. Now any security building in Damascus will be heavily guarded. Sometimes you see whole streets being blocked off because there's some kind of important building or some kind of important meeting taking place.

So anybody from the outside with, for example, a car bomb, just driving up to that building, I don't see that happening. So if, indeed, it was a terrorist attack or if, indeed, it was an attack by the opposition, then it must have had -- there would have to be an inside job. But still, as you mentioned, so much is unclear.

And Syria is still a closed country. Normally, the last place to look for information would be the Syrian state television. Now all the announcements of the people killed came from that Syrian state television. They have been broadcasting about this from the very beginning. That's a novelty.

So what to make of that if, indeed, an attack took place. Or is it some kind of internal conflict that is unwinding before our eyes? It's very hard to assess right now.

AMANPOUR: Sander van Hoorn, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

And now somebody who knew personally some of Assad's key advisers, who apparently were killed in today's bombing, Akil Hashem is a former general who served 27 years in the Syrian military. He joins me from New York.

Mr. Akil, thank you for being with us --


-- Mr. Hashem. Is there any doubt in your mind that this event happened and how do you think it happened with no sort of evidence?

As your correspondent has said, you know, Syria has a closed community. It is very difficult to get any confirmed information from the authorities.

But from my available sources, inside Syria, you know, the most confirmed theory about that it was a guy from the inner circle, a bodyguard from the inner circle of the regime, managed to plant a device, some explosion (sic) inside the room under the table, where this committee -- they called it the crisis committee -- head by Hassan Turkmani, who was killed in that incident.

And when the explosion happened, they were killed and there are so many others get injured severely. We don't know if they're going be killed or not. Now the only strange thing that these four names, who had been cleared by the Syrian officials, has been dead.

These, the same four people whom the opposition a month ago or maybe a little bit more declared, announced that they were killed in the same meeting but by poisoning. So I don't know --


HASHEM: I don't know for sure. I don't agree 100 percent that the regime managed to hide the deaths of these four people a couple of month until he -- and take this thing. I rely more on the theory that it was an explosion. Now let me comment a little bit about --

AMANPOUR: OK. Mr. Hashem?


AMANPOUR: Mr. Hashem, let me ask you, let me ask you a question first. You've explained what you think your theory is; certainly, rebels have claimed that. What does it mean that these four people seem to have been killed? What does it mean for Bashar al-Assad?

HASHEM: It means a lot. Physically and mentally. First of all it is a big blow to the regime. These four people are very, very important. Of course, they are not decision-makers. You know, in Syria and this dictatorship regime for years and years, the decision lays in the hands of one person, who is the dictator, not more than that.

But they are leading all the operation inside Syria, especially the very close relative, the brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who is -- who oversees all the intelligence agency in Syria and you know in Syria there is 17 different kind of security and intelligence agency. So it is very, very important. Now this will -- you have to look at it besides what happening in the different area of Damascus today.

There is a fight (ph) everywhere in Damascus. Of course, your correspondent in Damascus has moved around or drove around the area. But this is not the area where the activities is. This is the most wealthy neighborhood in Damascus, al-Rawda neighborhood. I know the place exactly. And it is also the most guarded place in Damascus.

But go to al-Hajar, al-Aswad, which is in the outskirts of Damascus or to al-Midan or to Bab Zior (ph) or to Jobar or to Al-Kabul (ph) and you will see fight spreading all over the area, actually most of the al-Midan, which is the most ancient neighborhood in Damascus. And it is a huge -- it is in the south of the city --

AMANPOUR: Right. Mr. Hashem?


AMANPOUR: Can Bashar al-Assad survive this? I know you said these people are the enforcers. They're not the decision-makers. But they were his top, probably most trusted lieutenants. How does he survive this? Who does he trust anymore?

HASHEM: He cannot trust anybody and he is in a very bad shape. His morale is in -- goes down the drain. He cannot do anything. He is hiding somewhere, I don't know where, and he is so frightened and panicked of what's going on, now as I said, if you shared this incident with the fight in Damascus, means this is the beginning of the end of this regime.

I cannot anticipate what's going to happen in the future, in the very near future, but I will wait like couple days until to see the consequences of this incident, and I can anticipate. But all possibilities are on the table, all possibilities. This guy might flee the country in this evening. This guy might be assassinated.

This guy might be subject to military coup or maybe his brother will take power off him. Everything is possible because the regime is collapsing. And this is what we anticipate.

On the other side, these freedom fighters, who were little in number and in equipment, seven months ago, now they are very well organized, very well commanded, very well armed, not, of course, as the regime, but they are still now fighting in the streets of Damascus. The strategy of the freedom fighters has been changed recently from a defensive strategy to offensive strategy.

At the beginning, their own job was to defend the civilians, the peaceful civilians, unarmed civilians from the attacks of the regime. But now they are going out to hunt the regime in every way they can, in every possible way they can do.

AMANPOUR: Last question, very briefly, Mr. Hashem, you say they're organized now. Of course, the world has always said that they're disorganized. But do you think that this was a rebel infiltration? Or was it a disaffected bodyguard who had nothing to do with the rebellion yet?

HASHEM: Let me tell you one thing for sure, and I can, you know, I can confirm that from hundreds of my relevant sources. There are so many people inside the regime, who working with the revolution and they still pretend that they are part of the regime.

And this guy was one of them. There are so many high rank officers in the military, in the intelligence services, everywhere.

They support the revolution with information about the movement of the military forces, about everything they can, and there are so many people are sleeping agent inside the regime, ready to do anything required to get rid of this regime and take Syria to a democratic liberated country in the future, in the near future, Insha'Allah. You know what Insha'Allah means?

AMANPOUR: Akil Hashem, thank you -- I certainly do.

And today has been a turning point, Akil Hashem. Thank you very much indeed for joining me.

And of course, when we return, we'll have an update on those two breaking stories that we've been reporting. We will be right back.



AMANPOUR: And finally, we have an update from Bulgaria, where the main news agency is now reporting seven people were killed in that bombing of a bus full of Israeli tourists.

And in Syria, where four members of President Assad's inner circle were killed today, the United Nations has postponed a vote on a resolution calling for further sanctions against the Assad regime. It's unclear what the next move there might be.

We'll be watching both of these stories closely. That is it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching. And goodbye from Jerusalem.