Syrian premier defects from "terrorist" al-Assad regime

Syrian premier defects from "terrorist" al-Assad regime

Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected to the opposition and fled the country in a major blow to President Bashar al-Assad's regime, as the battle for Aleppo escalated with rebels claiming to have shot down an army helicopter, DPA reported.

State television reported that Hijab was sacked. His spokesman Mohammed Ottri told Al Jazeera that the defection was organized by the rebel Free Syrian Army and that Hijab would soon make a statement to the Syrian people.

"I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime. I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution," said a statement from Hijab that was read by Ottri.

Hijab, a former agriculture minister who was appointed premier by al-Assad in June, is a Sunni Muslim and a member of the Syrian Baath party.

George Sabra, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council, told dpa from Paris: "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.

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

While the defection is a significant political and symbolic blow to the regime, the prime minister and cabinet wield little power in Syria. Real power rests with al-Assad's inner circle and the chiefs of the security services.

Opposition activists in Damascus said three other ministers, including the heads of the oil and endowment ministries, had also joined the rebels. There was no independent confirmation on their defections.

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

As news of Hijab's defection spread, fierce fighting was under way in Aleppo, where the army said it was bracing itself for a "decisive battle" to clear the city of "terrorists." About 25,000 security personnel were deployed around the city.

Rebel Abu Omar al-Halabi said a military helicopter "that was trying to bombard areas at the outskirts of Aleppo" was shot down by the rebels. "Clashes are now focusing on capturing a military barracks inside the north-eastern Hananou neighbourhood," he said.

State 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 Syrian rebels in the country's largest city.

The interim head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye, said Monday that he was "extremely concerned" about the "significant deterioration in Aleppo and its impact on the civilian population."

"I urge the parties to protect civilians and respect their obligations under international humanitarian law. Civilians must not be subjected to shelling and use of heavy weapons," Gaye said.

The Local Coordination Committees said 84 people were killed across the country, 30 of them in Aleppo.

Al-Halabi, the rebel, reported heavy shelling and clashes Monday, mainly in the south-western area of Salaheddine as well as al-Sukkari and Hanano to the north-east.

Earlier in the day, a bomb blast hit the Damascus headquarters of state television and radio. A witness said three people were slightly injured.

The bomb exploded on the third floor of the building in central Damascus' Umayyad Square. The station continued broadcasting normally.

Meanwhile, the head of Iran's joint chiefs of staff, General Hassan Firouzabadi, was quoted by the Fars news agency Monday as saying that "the Saudis, Turkey and Qatar are responsible for all the blood shed on Syrian soil."

"These countries should know that after Syria, it would be the turn of Turkey and the rest (to face a crisis)," he was quoted as saying.

Iran plans to hold a meeting on Syria on Thursday, state media reported. Tehran invited officials from countries "which have a more realistic approach" to the crisis.

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

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