Assailants Gun Down Syrian Official in Damascus

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Penetrating an area of Damascus generally seen as well guarded, a squad of assailants using silencer-equipped weapons shot a government official in a gangland-style assassination as he dined in the upscale Mezzeh district of the Syrian capital, opposition activists and government media said on Friday.

The official was identified as Ali Balan, a member of Syria's relief agency and the head of planning at the Social Affairs Ministry. Mr. Balan was responsible for distributing aid to the displaced population in Syria's civil war and was said to have met a day earlier with a Russian relief delegation.

While several midranking officials have been killed as the civil war has encroached into government-held areas, the location of assassination was unusual because the western Mezzeh district was considered to be secure. The use of silenced weapons instead of bombs also was a new twist.

A resident, who spoke in return for anonymity because of the security situation in Damascus, said four assailants carried out the killing at a Chinese restaurant at around 11 p.m. on Thursday.. One member of the squad entered the restaurant and opened fire with a silenced pistol, the resident said, while the other three waited outside.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and draws its information from a network of antigovernment informants in Syria, offered a slightly different version, saying all four attackers entered the restaurant in the early evening and that one opened fire as other diners looked on.

Rami Abdul Rahman, the founder of the Syrian Observatory, said the killing was a "political assassination" that he had first learned about it from medical sources and residents.

The official SANA news agency recorded the assassination in a terse dispatch, blaming what it called "terrorists" for shooting Mr. Balan "while he was sitting in a restaurant in the area, causing his martyrdom." The government routinely calls all armed opponents of the government as terrorists.

Since the Syrian revolt began in March 2011 and expanded into a full-blown civil war, even the most heavily guarded parts of the capital have not been immune from attack, often by bombers.

Last July, the killing of several of President Bashar al-Assad's main security aides in a brazen bombing attack near Mr. Assad's own residence, called into question the ability of the government to protect its functionaries from attack.

Just weeks ago, in March, an explosion killed at least 42 people inside a central Damascus mosque, including one of the major remaining Sunni supporters of President Assad's embattled Alawite government.

Also last month, opposition activists said a Customs Department officer in Damascus was killed by assassins who planted a bomb under his Mercedes-Benz.

The Mezzeh district is a relatively affluent enclave in Damascus. Although the sound of outgoing mortar fire can be heard almost constantly from nearby government military posts, upscale restaurants still operate, if with fewer customers than before. At one poolside club, children ride scooters beside a turquoise pool surrounded by palm trees while their parents smoke water pipes and eat salads off white tablecloths.

Hwaida Saad reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Alan Cowell from London. Anne Barnard contributed reporting from Beirut.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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