Assailants gun down top Syrian official

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

The official was identified in news reports as Ali Balan, a member of Syria's relief agency and the Social Affairs Ministry's head of planning. While several mid-ranking officials have been killed as the country's civil war has encroached into government-held areas, the location of the latest shooting was unusual because the western Mezzeh district was considered to be secure.

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 around 11 p.m. 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 anti-government informants in Syria, offered a slightly different version, saying all four attackers entered the restaurant in the early evening, and one opened fire as other diners looked on.

Rami Abdul Rahman, founder of the Syrian Observatory, said the killing was a "political assassination" he had learned of 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."

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

In July, the killing of several of President Bashar Assad's main security aides in a brazen bombing attack near Mr. Assad's residence, called into question the government's ability 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 Mr. 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.

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