Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab - Reuters
Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab. Photo by Reuters
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Haaretz
Assad's nest is crumbling. Photo by Haaretz

Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab has defected from President Bashar al-Assad's government and joined the opposition to his rule, his spokesman said on Monday.

According to al-Arabiya news channel, Hijab's spokesman stated that Hijab will leave Jordan and head to Qatar.

"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 the spokesman on Al Jazeera television.

Syrian state TV said Hijab had been fired but an official source in Amman said he had defected to neighboring Jordan.

The spokesman, Mohamed Atari, said Hijab was in a safe place together with his extended family. His defection had been organized with the Free Syrian Army, the rebel force fighting against Assad's rule.

"It was arranged with the Free Syrian Army months ago that it would safely deliver him to a secure place where he would announce his defection," Atari said.

He had started to plan how he would defect from the first day that he was appointed as prime minister, he said.

"The defection of Riyad Hijab is the key for all the honorable people in Syria: you must defect. A defection of this volume happened and was secured, so don't be scared, defect from this criminal regime," the statement said.

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

Shortly before reports of the Hijab's defection, Syrian television reported that he had been sacked from his post as prime minister. There was no immediate reason given for his dismissal.

Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said on Monday two government ministers had defected to Jordan along with Hijab.

SNC executive member Bassam Ishak said three army officers with rank of brigadier-general also defected with Hijab and the two ministers, whose identities were not immediately disclosed. The SNC assertions could not be immediately verified.

Earlier on Monday, 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.

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.

Emboldened by an 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 a "Turkish-Gulf militia", saying dead Turkish and Afghan fighters had been found in Aleppo.

Paralysis in the UN Security Council over how to stop the bloodshed forced peace envoy Kofi Annan to resign last week, his ceasefire plan a distant memory.

The violence has already shown elements of a proxy war between Sunni and Shi'ite 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.

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

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.