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Big blow for Assad

Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab (left) and president Bashar al-Assad (right).

AMMAN — Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab has defected to the opposition seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, a spokesman for Hijab said on Monday, marking one of the highest profile desertions from the Damascus government.

Syrian state television said Hijab had been fired, but an official source in the Jordanian capital Amman said he had been dismissed only after he fled across the border with his family.

“I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime and I announce that I have joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution,” Hijab said in a statement read in his name by the spokesman, which was broadcast on Al Jazeera television. “I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution.”

Syrian state television reported Hijab’s dismissal as government forces appeared to prepare a ground assault to clear battered rebels from Aleppo, the country’s biggest city.

The opposition Syrian National Council said a further two ministers and three army generals had defected with Hijab. That assertion could not immediately be verified.

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 Syrian state.

“Hijab is in Jordan with his family,” said the Jordanian official source, who did not want to be further identified. The source said Hijab had defected to Jordan before his sacking.

Assad appointed Hijab, formerly agriculture minister, as prime minister only in June following a parliamentary election which authorities said was a step towards political reform but which opponents dismissed as a sham.

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, who was previously a deputy prime minister, had been appointed to lead a temporary, caretaker government on Monday.

Assad and his father, who was president before him, have consistently appointed premiers from the majority 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. (Reuters)

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