Syrian prime minister defects, fighting goes on
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces pressed on with their offensive against rebels in the largest city Aleppo after the prime minister fled the country, denouncing the "terrorist regime" of Bashar al-Assad.
The defection of Riyad Hijab - who like most of the opposition hails from the Sunni Muslim majority - was a further sign of the isolation of Assad's government around an inner core of powerful members of his minority Alawite sect.
Opposition figures, buoyant despite setbacks in recent weeks of fighting around Damascus and Aleppo, spoke of an extensive and long-planned operation to spirit Hijab and his large extended family across the border to Jordan.
"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 by a spokesman on Al Jazeera television on Monday. He declared himself "a soldier in this blessed revolution".
A spokesman for U.S. President Barack Obama hailed Hijab's defection as a sign that the 40-year rule of Assad's family was "crumbling from within" and said he should step down.
Western leaders' repeated predictions of Assad's imminent collapse have so far proven premature, however.
The security forces have overwhelming superiority in firepower, which they have wielded against lightly armed rebels who poured into the two main cities, Damascus and Aleppo, in the past month.
The rebels gathered momentum last month, attempting to seize the two cities after an audacious bomb attack killed four members of Assad's inner circle. But a government counteroffensive has been devastating, with troops largely recapturing Damascus and using helicopters and tanks to hammer rebels who retain control of parts of Aleppo. Continued...