News Column

Syrian Prime Minister Defects

Aug. 6, 2012

Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab has defected to the opposition and fled the country, his spokesman said Monday, in a major blow to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian state television, meanwhile, reported that Hijab, a former agriculture minister who was appointed premier by President Bashar al-Assad in June, had been sacked. It gave no reason for his removal.

Opposition activist Haytham al-Abdallah, of the Local Coordination Committees, told dpa that the premier had defected with his family and other high-ranking officials, and is now outside Syria.

Hijab's spokesman, Mohammed Ottri, told Al Jazeera that the defection was closely organized by the Free Syrian Army and that Hijab will soon make a statement addressed to the Syrian people.

Hijab was threatened by al-Assad's regime in June into accepting the post of the premiership, added Ottri, who was also speaking from Jordan.

A Free Syrian Army source said that the defection operation took place at dawn on Monday.

He added that high-ranking officers from the Alawite sect, to which al-Assad belongs, have also defected, but declined to give details.

State television said that First Deputy Prime Minister Omar Ghalwanji will temporarily head the government.

"This defection is very important because it shows that the regime is falling apart and that some of its main leaders and figures are now joining the rebels and the people of Syria in their uprising against this brutal regime," spokesman of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, told dpa from Paris.

"I can tell you the regime is collapsing and the end is approaching," Sabra said.

While the defection is a significant political blow to the al-Assad regime, the prime minister and cabinet are not very powerful in Syria. Real power rests with al-Assad and his circle, and with the chiefs of the security services.

Shortly before the news of Hijab's defection came out, a bomb blast hit the Damascus headquarters of state television and radio.

The bomb exploded on the third floor of the building in central Damascus' Umayyad Square. The station continued broadcasting normally, although it showed pictures of people being helped out of debris.

"Only three people were slightly injured in the blast, which caused heavy material damage," a witness said.

Meanwhile, the government has massed 25,000 troops in the northern province of Aleppo in preparation for what it called a "decisive battle", as activists claimed more rebel gains towards the city's ancient centre.

"Despite the intense bombardment and strafing from warplanes, our rebels are advancing towards the city's centre," Abu Omar al-Halabi, a commander in the Free Syrian Army, told dpa by phone from Aleppo.

State-run television said that the army is bracing itself for a "decisive battle" to clear Aleppo, northern Syria's commercial hub, from "terrorists."

The official news agency SANA described the Aleppo rebels as "Gulf and Turkish militias," in a reference to the foreign forces that it claims are helping the rebels in Aleppo.

Al-Halabi reported heavy shelling and clashes Monday, mainly in Salaheddine in the south-west of the city and al-Sukkari and Hanano to the northeast.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 28 people were killed across the country.

Activists in Damascus told dpa that the rebels inside the capital appear to be shifting to hit-and-run strikes against government forces. On Saturday, troops said they had regained control of all areas inside the capital.

Meanwhile, opposition sources said Mohammed Ahmed Faris, Syria's first man in space, has fled to Turkey and joined opposition forces. Faris, who is from Aleppo, was part of a three-man crew of a Soviet space mission in 1987.

Source: Copyright 2012 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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