Syria's prime minister fled the country on Monday, denouncing the "terrorist regime" of Bashar al-Assad as the United States hailed the highest level government defection as a sign the Syrian president was losing his grip.
Riyad Hijab, who like much of the opposition comes from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, was not part of Assad's inner circle, but as prime minister and the most senior civilian official to defect his departure dealt a symbolic blow to an establishment rooted in the president's minority Alawite sect.
Opposition figures, buoyant despite setbacks in recent heavy fighting around Damascus and Aleppo, spoke of an extensive and long-planned operation to spirit not just Hijab but numerous members of his extended family across the Jordanian border.
"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. "I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution."
While pleased at the evidence that his flight had offered of despair in high places in Damascus, few rebels seemed ready to embrace Hijab as an ally, given his decades of loyal service to the oppressive and corrupt rule of Assad's Baath party.
His departure is also unlikely immediately to weaken Assad's grip on power. That is rooted in the army and an Alawite-dominated security apparatus rocked by a bomb last month that killed top officials, including Assad's brother-in-law.
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.
Months of predictions of his imminent collapse have yet to come true, however. Heavy firepower, foreign backing in Tehran and Moscow and a wariness in the West of the fragmented opposition have left the 46-year-old president dug in and fighting back, supported by a religious minority fearful for its very survival.
One Arab broadcaster quoted Hijab's spokesman as saying he would head to Qatar. The country is vocal among the Western-allied, Sunni-led states whose opposition to Assad and his Iranian, Shi'ite sponsors reflects the regional and sectarian dimension of a conflict that began 18 months ago with "Arab Spring" street demonstrations demanding democratic reform.
On Monday, a spokesman for rebel forces around Damascus said three Iranians out of a group of more than 40 they were holding captive had been killed in army shelling of rebel positions. He said the rebels would kill the remaining prisoners if the bombardment went on.
Iran says the captives were pilgrims travelling to Shi'ite holy sites. The rebels, who seized them on Saturday, say they suspect them of being Revolutionary Guards sent to assist Assad.
Iran's armed forces chief Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi warned neighbouring states against involvement in Syria: "Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are responsible for the blood that is being spilled in Syria," he said.
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.
Khaled al-Hbous, a senior figure in the rebel Free Syrian Army for the area around the capital, said that his fighters had helped Hijab flee the country: "Between 5:30 and 7:30 this morning we did it," he told Reuters by telephone. "We secured his entry to Jordan and the Jordanian army took him from us."
He gave no details - Damascus lies 100 km (60 miles) from the border - but said more high-level defections would follow.
Fear of reprisals against relatives has, the opposition says, deterred many senior officials from deserting their posts. Along with Hijab's family, those of his seven brothers and two sisters also had to be spirited to safety.
Hijab, aged in his late 40s, was a top official of the ruling Baath party but, like other senior defectors so far from the government and armed forces, he was also a Sunni and had little real authority. Assad appointed Hijab, formerly agriculture minister, as prime minister in June following a parliamentary election which authorities said was a step towards political reform but which opponents dismissed as a sham.
Syrian television said Omar Ghalawanji, previously a deputy prime minister, had been appointed to lead a temporary, caretaker government on Monday. He chaired a cabinet meeting at which all other members were present, it said, denying a rebel claim that other ministers had also fled.
"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.
"For months the regime has been eroding and shedding its outer layers, while rebuilding itself around a large, diehard fighting force," he said. "The regime as we knew it is certainly much weakened, but the question remains of how to deal with what it has become."
A bomb hit the Damascus headquarters of Syria's state broadcaster, but injuries were minor and transmission continued.
Rebels in districts of Aleppo visited by Reuters journalists in recent days seemed battered, overwhelmed and running low on ammunition after days of intense shelling of their positions by tanks and heavy machinegun fire from helicopter gunships.
Syrian army tanks shelled alleyways where rebels sought cover as a helicopter gunship fired heavy machineguns. Snipers ran on rooftops targeting rebels. Women and children fled the city, some crammed in the back of pickup trucks, while others trekked on foot, heading to relatively safer rural areas.
Emboldened by the audacious bomb attack in Damascus that killed four of Assad's top security officials last month, the rebels had tried to overrun Damascus and Aleppo, the country's commercial hub, near the Turkish border.
But the lightly armed rebels have been outgunned by the Syrian army's superior weaponry. They were largely driven out of Damascus and are struggling to hold on to territorial gains made in Aleppo, a city of 2.5 million.
Damascus has criticised Gulf Arab states and Turkey for calling for the rebels to be armed, and state television has described the rebels as a "Turkish-Gulf militia", saying dead Turkish and Afghan fighters had been found in Aleppo.
Paralysis in the U.N. Security Council over how to stop the bloodshed persuaded peace envoy Kofi Annan to resign last week, his ceasefire plan a distant memory.
The main focus of fighting in Aleppo has been the Salaheddine district. Once a busy shopping and restaurant district, it is now white with dust, broken concrete and rubble.
Tank shell holes gape wide on the top of buildings near the front line, and homes of families have been turned into look-outs and sniper locations for rebel fighters. Large mounds of concrete are used as barriers to close off streets. Lamp-posts lie horizontally across the road after being downed by shelling.
Civilians trickle back to collect their belongings and check on their homes. "Just to hold power he is willing to destroy our streets, our ho
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