Assad's PM Riad Hijab joins rebels in 'blessed revolution'

Opposition smuggle Riad Hijab out of country in humiliating blow to Assad regime

The Free Syrian Army yesterday promised that more high-level defections were coming as the prime minister escaped from the country, dealing a humiliating blow to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

In a complex and daring operation carried out by the Free Syrian Army, Riad Hijab - the most senior political official to defect so far - and the families of his nine siblings were smuggled out of the country to Jordan. Once safely out, the former prime minister, a Sunni from the Deir Ezzor region, described himself as a "soldier of this blessed revolution" and accused the regime of genocide.

While the position of prime minister wields little real power in Syria, the defection remains a coup for the opposition, and one they hope will spur further senior officials to turn.

"We are currently in contact with many officers from the army and state security who want to defect, including a senior general from the Alawite community," said FSA spokesman Fahad al-Masri. "The coming weeks will see many more."

News of the defection of Mr Hijab, a previous minister of agriculture, broke only hours after a blast ripped through the third floor of the Syrian state television offices on Umawiyeen Square in central Damascus, injuring three people. No group claimed responsibility.

And in an incident that has the potential to further destabilise the fragile region, rebels in Damascus said that three of the nearly 50 Iranian hostages they were holding on suspicion of fighting on behalf of the regime - but that Iran claims are pilgrims - had been killed in an air strike. "We will kill the rest if the army does not stop its assault. They have one hour," said the FSA's Moutassam al-Ahmad.

Mr Hijab, who is en route to Qatar, is said to have been planning his defection for two months, with the operation supposed to take place three weeks ago, but pushed back after the Damascus bombing that killed four members of Assad's inner circle. Most of Mr Hijab's brothers worked for the government, including in the ministries of oil and environment.

They were said to have been smuggled individually to the border area with armed guards, where their families were waiting, crossing early yesterday morning.

Opposition sources said Mr Hijab felt he had no choice but to take up the position of prime minister in June.

"In the Syrian regime, when Assad chooses somebody for a position, you can't refuse. If you refuse there are only two paths ahead for you, the first is prison, the second is your tomb," said Mr al-Masri.

Western diplomats - deflated after the UN-backed peace plan disintegrated last week - hailed the defection as the latest blow to the regime.

"This is a sign that Assad's grip on power is loosening," said the White House spokesman, Jay Carney. "If he cannot maintain cohesion within his own inner circle, it reflects on his inability to maintain any following among the Syrian people that isn't brought about at the point of a gun."

Despite being a long-term member of the Baath Party and senior politician throughout the slaughter, Mr Hijab's defection was welcomed in groups such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and Syrian National Council. However, in the war-torn Aleppo district of Salheddine, hit almost without break by regime tanks, artillery, helicopter-gunships and fighter bombers, the mood was that no accommodation should be made for those abandoning the regime at this late stage.

"This man must pay for the crimes he has committed when he was in power," said Mahmoud Ali Rahimuddin, an ambulance driver carrying injured rebel fighters. "The fact that he has at last abandoned the evil people he was with would be in his favour, but we cannot forget what he and people like him have done." A fighter, known as Anatan, agreed: "What made him suddenly see the wrong he and his government were doing? The last 50 killings by his people or the 50 before that."

Others saw it differently. Free Syrian Army officer Abdul Al-Ashar said he'd be celebrating "two Eids" - a reference to the Muslim celebrations at the end of Ramadan. "This will make [my men] even more determined to drive the regime from Aleppo," he said. "This will not win us the war, and we have a big fight in Aleppo, but it is a very good sign of progress."

Changing sides: the defectors

Riad Hijab 7 August

During his stint as Governor of the city of Latakia, Riad Hijab oversaw regime crackdowns in the early days of last year's uprising before being appointed Prime Minister less than two months ago. A Sunni Muslim from the Deir al-Zour area of eastern Syria, he (and his nine siblings, as well as their families) was smuggled into Jordan - a huge blow to the Syrian regime.

Syrian chargé d'affaires in London Khaled al-Ayoubi - 30 July

Said that he was "no longer willing to represent a regime that has committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people."

Ambassador Nawaf al-Fares - 12 July

Syria's Ambassador to Iraq announced his defection on Facebook, slamming the Assad regime for killing civilians and calling on Syrian troops to mutiny.

General Manaf Tlass - 6 July

Tlass was the first member of Assad's inner circle to defect.

Air force pilot Colonel Hassan Hammadeh - 21 June

The Syrian fighter pilot landed his MiG-21 plane at King Hussein Airbase in Jordan, where he was granted asylum on "humanitarian" grounds.

Oil minister Abdo Husameddin - 7 March

The first senior official to defect, Husameddin is a career politician.

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