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Syria premier defects to anti-Assad opposition, spokesman says

SANA via EPA

A picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows policemen inspecting the damage at the state-run Syrian TV building in Damascus after a bomb ripped through its third floor.

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

Syrian state TV said Hijab had been fired, but an official source in Amman told Reuters that the dismissal followed his defection to neighboring Jordan with his family. 


 

Khaled Al-Hariri / Reuters, file

Syrian television reported on Monday that Prime Minister Riyad Hijab had been fired. His purported spokesman said he had defected 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. I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution," Hijab said in a statement read in his name by Mohammad Otari, who identified himself as Hijab's spokesman, on Al Jazeera television

Ahmad Kassim, a senior official with the Free Syrian Army, told The Associated Press that Hijab defected to Jordan along with three other ministers.

"Don't be scared. Defect from this criminal regime," Otari said in the televised statement, urging other Syrians to join the defecting ministers.

Otari denied that his boss had been fired, and added that the defection was planned "for months" and was executed in conjunction with the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition group in Syria.

The news follows other high-level defections -- including that of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas  -- and deaths of the country's defense minister and as well as his powerful brother-in-law in a bomb blast in Damascus in July.

A bomb rips through Syria's state television building in Damascus, while the country is also rocked by the news of the Prime Minister's defection to the opposition. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

From restive Deir al-Zour
Syrian state TV announced Hijab's dismissal as government forces appeared to prepare a ground assault to clear battered rebels from Aleppo, the country's biggest city. 

Journalist: British militants took me hostage in Syria

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

"Hijab is in Jordan with his family," said the Jordanian official source, who did not want to be further identified. The source told Reuters that Hijab had defected to Jordan before the announcement that he was fired. 

NBC News

People resisting the army of President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

Hijab is a Sunni Muslim from Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria, which has been caught up in the revolt, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Syrian TV said Omar Ghalawanji, who was previously a deputy prime minister, had been appointed to lead a temporary caretaker government on Monday. 

Earlier in the day, a bomb blast hit the Damascus headquarters of Syria's state broadcaster as troops backed by fighter jets kept up an offensive against the last rebel bastion in the capital. 

In villages across Syria there is great concern for the city of Aleppo, where the violence seen in the last few days could be nothing compared to what's coming. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

The bomb exploded on the third floor of the state television and radio building, state TV said. However, while the rebels may have struck a symbolic blow in their 17-month-old uprising against Assad, Information Minister Omran Zoabi said none of the injuries was serious, and state TV continued broadcasting. 

Rebels in districts of Aleppo visited by Reuters journalists seemed battered, overwhelmed and running low on ammunition after days of intense tank shelling and helicopter gunships strafing their positions with heavy machinegun fire. 

Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.

Audacious attack 
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 the Damascus and Aleppo, the country's commercial hub. 

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 criticized Gulf Arab states and Turkey for calling for the rebels to be armed, and state TV has described the rebels as "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 forced peace envoy Kofi Annan to resign last week, his ceasefire plan a distant memory.

Activists report mortars hitting a Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital. Meanwhile, Turkey has been holding military drills along its border with Syria. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

The violence has already shown elements of a proxy war between Sunni and Shiite Islam which could spill beyond Syria's border.

The rebels claimed responsibility for capturing 48 Iranians in Syria, forcing Tehran to call on Turkey and Qatar -- major supporters of the rebels -- to help secure their release. 

Iran asks for help after dozens of pilgrims kidnapped in Syria

On Monday, Syrian army tanks shelled alleyways in Aleppo where rebels sought cover a helicopter gunship fired heavy machinegun fire.

Photojournalist John Cantlie tells Krishnan Guru-Murthy of the UK's Channel 4 News about the terrifying week he was held captive in Syria by radical Islamic militants, some of them British.

Snipers ran on rooftops targeting rebels, and one of them shot at a rebel car filled with bombs, setting the vehicle on fire. Women and children fled the city, some crammed in the back of pickup trucks, while others walked on foot, heading to relatively safer rural areas. 

Aleppo gateway
The main focus of fighting in Aleppo has been the Salaheddine district, a gateway into the city. One shell hit a building next to the Reuters reporting team, pouring rubble on to the street and sending billows of smoke and dust into the sky. 

State television said Assad's forces were "cleansing the terrorist filth" from the country, which has been sucked into an increasingly sectarian conflict that has killed about 18,000 people and could spill into neighboring states.

The army appeared to be using a similar strategy in Aleppo to the one used in other cities where they subjected opposition districts to heavy bombardment for days, weakening the rebels before moving in on the ground, clearing district by district.

Syria's two main cities had been relatively free of violence until last month when fighters poured into them, transforming the war. The government largely repelled the assault on Damascus but has had more difficulty recapturing Aleppo. 

Explosions shake Syria capital as rebels renew attack

Rebel commanders say they anticipate a major Syrian army offensive in Aleppo and one fighter said they had already had to pull back from some streets after army snipers advanced on Saturday under cover of the fierce aerial and tank bombardment. 

Rebels and regime forces continue their fight to control Syria's largest city. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

"The Syrian army is penetrating our lines," Mohammad Salifi, a 35-year-old former government employee. "So we were forced to strategically retreat until the shelling ends," he said, adding the rebels were trying to push the army back again. 

Late Sunday rebels clashed with the army in Aleppo's south-eastern Nayrab district, a fighter who called himself Abu Jumaa said.

The army responded by shelling eastern districts. There were also clashes on the southern ring road, which could be a sign the army was preparing to surround the city. 

Reuters, The Associated Press and NBC News staff contributed to this report.

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