Syria denies reports of defection of al-Assad's deputy
The Syrian government on Saturday denied a claim from the opposition that President Bashar al-Assad's deputy has joined its ranks and fled to neighbouring Jordan, dpa reported.
An al-Arabiya report cited the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as saying that Farouk al-Sharaa had defected. Naji Tayara from the Syrian National Council told the broadcaster he was aware of the defection but was awaiting confirmation of al-Sharaa's arrival in Amman.
Tayara added that al-Sharaa "disappeared about 10 days ago."
The vice president's office, in a statement, denied reports of a defection, saying al-Sharaa "did not think at any moment about leaving his home country."
"Since the beginning of the crisis, al-Sharaa has worked with all parties to halt bloodshed and to start a political process within the framework of a comprehensive dialogue to achieve reconciliation and national independence away from any foreign military intervention," the statement released via the state news agency SANA said.
The 73-year-old has been al-Assad's deputy since 2006, after serving as foreign minister for more than two decades. He has mostly kept a low profile since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, with rumours of his death having circulated on several occasions.
The reports of his defection come two days after his cousin Yareb al-Sharaa joined the opposition and follows the defection of the prime minister Riad Hijab, two members of al-Assad's cabinet and several diplomats.
The spate of defections is seen as a possible turning point in the conflict that began with protests against the government and is estimated to have claimed more than 17,000 lives.
In its statement Saturday, al-Sharaa's office also welcomed the appointment of Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as the new international peace envoy to Syria.
The 78-year-old succeeds Kofi Annan, who resigned earlier this month, in frustration with the Syrian regime and countries with veto power on the UN Security Council. His resignation is effective at the end of August.
China and Russia have steadfastly blocked the international community from taking harsher action against al-Assad's regime.
The European Union on Saturday called on the international community to offer Brahimi "strong and unified support".
"The prerequisite for any political process to work is full support by the UN Security Council and agreement by all parties to give diplomacy another chance," top EU diplomat Catherine Ashton said in a statement.
"I call on the international community and in particular the UN Security Council to provide (Brahimi) with its strong and unified support."
In Syria, government helicopters were shelling the Sakhour neighbourhood in the northern city of Aleppo, as well as the Mayadeen area in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, the opposition Local Coordination Committees reported.
At least 34 people were killed in the violence countrywide on Saturday, while rebels and troops clashed near the military airport at al-Nairab bridge, in the northern commercial hub of Aleppo.