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Syria defiant after PM Riad Hijab defection

Published: August 7, 2012 | 7:46 am
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Syria’s new cabinet has met in emergency session, after Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected and denounced Damascus’s “terrorist regime”.

The White House said the defection showed that President Bashar al-Assad’s government was “crumbling from within”.

But Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said Mr Hijab had not appeared in person and he rejected reports of other ministerial defections.

Meanwhile, reports suggest the army has stepped up its bombardment of Aleppo.

Government forces are trying to dislodge rebel fighters who have taken control of some areas of Syria’s second city.

Opposition activists report intense attacks on rebel-held areas on the north-east and south-west sides of the city.

State TV said troops had clashed with “terrorist groups” in several places, inflicting heavy losses and recapturing two police stations.

Further deaths were reported in Damascus on Tuesday and an unconfirmed report from Syrian rebels said three of 48 Iranians being held as hostages had been killed by army shelling.

The rebels have claimed that the Iranians, abducted from a bus in Damascus on Saturday, are members of the Revolutionary Guard. Tehran says they are pilgrims who had been heading for a Shia religious site.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian has said it holds the US responsible for the group’s safety.

He said the US was supporting “terrorist groups” and despatching weapons to Syria, and was therefore responsible for the lives of those abducted.

‘Business as usual’

Caretaker Prime Minister Omar Ghalawanji headed a cabinet meeting on Monday, stressing that all the ministers were there.
The BBC’s Jim Muir, in neighbouring Lebanon, said state media were giving the impression of it being business as usual in Damascus.

Opposition activists said that apart from the prime minister, two other ministers had also defected and a third – Finance Minister Mohammad Jalilati – was arrested as he tried to escape.

But Syria’s information minister played down the significance of Mr Hijab’s departure and denied there had been further defections.

“We haven’t heard anything from the former prime minister and he didn’t appear on TV,” Omran al-Zoubi was quoted as saying by Syrian state news agency Sana.

The finance minister was said to have given a phone interview saying he was still in his post and working from his office.

According to Sana, Religious Endowments Minister Mohammad Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed also denied he had defected.

Syria was a state of institutions, the information minister said, and the flight of some of its individuals would not affect the state, however prominent they were.

‘Safe location’

Riad Hijab, appointed as prime minister less than two months ago, is the most prominent Syrian figure to defect so far.

Although his whereabouts are unclear, his spokesman appeared on al-Jazeera TV in neighbouring Jordan saying that the prime minister had fled Syria with his family and was in “a safe location”.

“I have defected from the terrorist, murderous regime and [am] joining the holy revolution,” ran Mr Hijab’s statement read by his spokesman Mohammed el-Etri.

France said the Assad government was “doomed” and White House spokesman Jay Carney said such high-level defections signalled that President Assad’s grip on power was “loosening”.

“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,” he said.

BBC

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