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Syrian Prime Minister Defects In Major Blow To Assad Regime

Syria's recently appointed prime minister has defected to Jordan and joined the opposition to President Bashar Assad, the highest-level departure to date from the embattled regime.

Prime Minister Riyad Hijab fled with his family just two months after assuming his post in the Cabinet. In a statement read to Al-Jazeera television, Hijab rejected a claim from Syrian state media that he had been 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 by spokesman Muhammad el-Etri on Al-Jazeera television.

According to Al-Jazeera's website:

Etri also denied that Hijab had been sacked, saying that the government had made the announcement of his dismissal after officials realized that the prime minister had fled the country.

Etri said that the defection was planned "for months", and was executed in conjunction with the Free Syrian Army [rebels].

The former prime minister encouraged other Syrian officials to defect in the wake of his announcement, Etri said, adding that with his departure other, less senior, officials "have no excuse not to defect."

He cautioned, however, that the Syrian government was likely to "react haphazardly, in a hysterical manner. It will perpetrate more killings [and] any official willing to defect must act wisely. He must take care of himself and his family."

"The regime speaks only one language: the language of blood," Etri told Al-Jazeera.

Hijab is the first Cabinet minister to defect, and the BBC says his departure "underscores the cracks in the regime which are reaching beyond military ranks."

Last month, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, who was considered close to Assad, also defected, joining some 30 other Syrian generals who have crossed over to Turkey.

Syrian state media said Monday that Deputy Prime Minister Omar Ghalawanji would become the head of a caretaker government.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.

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