Syria’s prime minister has defected to the opposition seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, marking one of the highest profile desertions from the Damascus government.
Syrian state television said Riyad Hijab had been fired, but a Jordanian official said he had been dismissed only after he fled with his family.
The defection came as government forces appeared to prepare a ground assault to clear battered rebels from Aleppo, the country’s biggest city.
Just hours before word of the defection got out, Assad suffered another blow as a bomb ripped through the third floor of the state TV building in Damascus, wounding at least three employees.
Mohammad Otari, Hijab’s spokesman, said the minister was appointed about two months ago and started planning his defection at that time. He said Hijab asked rebels from the Free Syrian Army to help him escape, which they did.
“The criminal Assad pressed him to become a prime minister and left him no choice but to accept the position. He had told him: ‘You either accept the position or get killed’,” said Otari, who said that Hijab and his family planned to travel on from Amman to Qatar, one of the main state backers of the rebels.
“The prime minister defected from the regime of killing, maiming and terrorism. He considers himself a soldier in the revolution.”
Hijab left with his family and seven brothers, including two who held top posts at the ministries of oil and environment
The opposition Syrian National Council said a further two ministers and three army generals had defected with the prime minister. Hijab was a top official of the ruling Baath party but, like all other senior defectors so far from the government and armed forces, he was also a Sunni Muslim rather than a member of Assad’s Alawite sect, which has long dominated the country.
Hijab’s home province of Deir al-Zor has been under heavy Syrian army shelling for several weeks as Assad’s forces try to dislodge rebels from large areas of countryside there.
Syrian television said Omar Ghalawanji, previously a deputy prime minister, had been appointed to lead a temporary, caretaker government.
Assad and his father before him, have consistently appointed premiers from the Sunni community. However, the position is largely powerless and control has remained with Assad, his family and security chiefs from the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
“Defections are occurring in all components of the regime save its hard inner core, which for now has given no signs of fracturing,” said Peter Harling at the International Crisis Group think-tank. “For months the regime has been eroding and shedding its outer layers, while rebuilding itself around a large, diehard fighting force. The regime as we knew it is certainly much weakened, but the question remains of how to deal with what it has become.”
Rebels in Aleppo seemed battered, overwhelmed and running low on ammunition after days of intense shelling of their positions by tanks and heavy machinegun fire from helicopter gunships.
Emboldened by an audacious bomb attack in Damascus that killed four of Assad’s top security officials last month, the rebels had tried to overrun Damascus and Aleppo.
But the lightly armed rebels have been outgunned by the army’s superior weaponry. They were largely driven out of Damascus and are struggling to hold on to territorial gains made in Aleppo, a city of 2.5 million.
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