CAIRO — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government suffered a significant blow Monday when Prime Minister Riyad Hijab fled with his family to Jordan, two months after taking the top post.
Hijab said he defected. Syrian state media said he was fired.
"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 in his name on Al Jazeera television.
A spokesman, Mohammed Otri, later told journalists that Hijab had been planning his defection for a long time. He said the defection did not occur on the spur of the moment, but that it had been planned for several months in coordination with the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Riad Hijab Profile
- Defected two months after being appointed prime minister
- Longtime member of Ba'ath Party
- Served as Agriculture Minister, has a PhD in agriculture
- Was governor of Quneitra and Latakia provinces
- Born in 1966 in Deir Ezzor
Opposition activists say Hijab and his family were smuggled out of Syria by rebel fighters.
Syrian state media said Hijab had been "relieved of his duties" and that his deputy, Omar Ghalawanji, was replacing him in a "caretaker" capacity.
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, said the high-level defection shows that Assad's regime is crumbling.
"[Hijab] was just appointed by the president," he said. "This means that the president can no longer trust anybody around him, especially Sunnis. This means that he will have difficulty finding somebody to work under his umbrella. The Syrian leadership is disintegrating from within."
As the fighting continued in Syria's largest city of Aleppo for an 18th day, videos posted on the Internet showed people trying to pull victims from the rubble of buildings allegedly bombed by government warplanes.
Witnesses say a number of buildings in Aleppo's Sakhour district were leveled.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the army is shelling several neighborhoods in Aleppo and that nationwide nearly 30 civilians had been killed.
Earlier Monday, an explosion tore through the third floor offices of Syrian state TV in Damascus, causing a number of casualties. The station broadcast video of employees running through smoke-filled corridors as wires and ceiling tiles dangled in the air.
Government and opposition claims in Syria are difficult to verify because journalists do not have a freedom of movement.
Aleppo, the country's biggest city, has become a key battleground in the nearly year and a half uprising against Assad's rule.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that more than 40 Syrians, including 25 civilians, were confirmed as killed Sunday across the country. The British-based group said more than 24 others were killed a day earlier.
Meanwhile, Iranian media said Sunday that Tehran has asked Turkey and Qatar to help secure the release of 48 Iranian nationals kidnapped Saturday in Damascus.
Iran says the victims were religious pilgrims, but a brigade commander with the Free Syrian Army describes them as elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Iran backs the Syrian government, while Turkey and Qatar support the Syrian opposition.
Former Iranian President Abolhasan Bani Sadr told VOA that the captured Iranians were not armed or wearing Revolutionary Guard uniforms. He said Iran is definitely helping Assad and that the stakes are very high for his country.
He said the fall of the Assad government not only would be a heavy blow to Iranian prestige and influence in the region, but it also would reinforce U.S. policy of containing Iran. He said Tehran views any toppling of Assad as signifying that Iran's turn could be next.
Call for help
U.S. Senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman and Lindsey Graham say the United States should provide direct assistance to the opposition, including weapons, intelligence and training.
In a joint opinion piece published late Sunday by The Washington Post, they say the U.S. is jeopardizing its national security, as well as its moral standing in the world, by remaining on the sidelines.
The senators said inaction would haunt the nation "for years to come."