BEIRUT — Syria's prime minister defected and fled to neighboring Jordan, a Jordanian official and a rebel spokesman said Monday, evidence that the cracks in President Bashar's Assad's regime have reached the highest echelons of government.
Ahmad Kassim, a senior official with the Free Syrian Army, said Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected to Jordan along with three other ministers. A Jordanian government official confirmed Hijab defected with his family but did not comment on whether three other ministers had also come. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he was not allowed to make any public statements on the defection.
Hijab is the highest-level government official to defect since the uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule began 17 months ago. The other ministers' identities were not immediately known and Syrian TV denied reports that Finance Minister Mohammad Jlailati had defected.
"The prime minister defected from the regime of killing, maiming and terrorism. He considers himself a soldier in the revolution," Mohammad Otari, Hijab's spokesman, told The Associated Press in Amman, Jordan.
Assad's regime has suffered a series of significant setbacks over the past month that point to a loosening of its grip on the country.
Four of the president's top security aides were killed in a rebel bombing of state security headquarters in the capital Damascus on July 18, including the defense minister and Assad's brother in law. There has been a steady stream of high-level defections from diplomats to generals in recent weeks. And the regime has been unable to fully subdue rebel challenges in the two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
Hijab's defection comes less than two months after he was appointed to the post, which is largely symbolic in Syria where the president and a tight coterie of advisers hold the real power.
Otari said Hijab, who hails from Syria's eastern province of Deir el-Zour, planned his defection for more than two months, and began the planning as soon as he was appointed prime minister. He declined to confirm that the premier was in Jordan now, but said Hijab was in a "safe place" along with his family and seven brothers, including two who held top government posts at the ministries of oil and environment.
"The criminal Assad pressed him to become a prime minister and left him no choice, but to accept the position. He had told him: 'You either accept the position or get killed,'" Otari said.
He said the prime minister approached rebels from the Free Syrian Army at least two months ago to help him escape, which they did.
Earlier Monday, Syrian state-run TV reported Hijab was fired from his post. A former agriculture minister, Hijab took office less than two months ago and was considered a loyalist in Assad's ruling Baath party.
The Syrian opposition celebrated Hijab's defection and saluted his bravery. George Sabra, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council, said Hijab is a symbol of the state and added that he expected his desertion to usher in a chain of others.
"He has finally discovered that this regime is an enemy of its own people and is destined to fall, and he chose to join the ranks of those who defected before him," Sabra told AP. "This will trigger a chain of other defections by Syrian senior government and security officials," he added. "The Syrian regime is drowning and this is the clearest sign yet."
A few hours before news of the defections came out, a bomb ripped through the third floor of the state TV building in Damascus, shattering offices and wounding at least three employees. The Syrian capital has witnessed a string of suicide attacks and other bombings in the past few months as the civil war escalates and the rebels grow bolder and more capable.
The TV remained on air despite what was another severe breach of a state institution and a heavily guarded area in the capital.
There was no claim of responsibility for the attack.
"The explosion was so powerful it threw me in the air," said Mohammad Oudeh, a staffer who was lightly wounded in his right hand.
Ahmad Abdullah, a Turkey-based member of the Free Syrian Army rebel group, said the TV station "broadcasts government propaganda and this makes it a target for the rebels."
A pro-government private Syrian TV station, Al-Ikhbariya, broadcast images of the damage at the state TV building. The footage showed destroyed walls, overturned desks, blown-out cabinet doors, broken glass and dangling electricity cables. A few TV workers were shown tending to a wounded colleague.
Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi blamed Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel for the attack. Syrian authorities accuse the Gulf countries and Israel of supporting the rebels.
"Nothing can silence the voice of Syria or the voice of the Syrian people," al-Zoubi said while inspecting the damage at the TV building. "We have a thousand locations to broadcast from."
Syria's rebels have grown increasingly bold and capable in recent months. In July, the rebels and Syrian regime forces fought intense battles for a week in Damascus in what was the opposition fighters' biggest challenge so far in the capital.
The government claimed Saturday it was now in full control of all districts in the capital, after purging one of the last rebel-held areas, but clashes have continued in some districts.
In a brazen daylight attack, rebels commandeered a bus and snatched 48 Iranians just outside Damascus Saturday. Iran said those abducted were pilgrims who were visiting a shrine about 10 miles south of Damascus and were on their way to the airport to return home.
But the captors claimed in a video broadcast Sunday that one of the captives was an officer of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards and that the 48 were on a "reconnaissance mission" in the capital.
Mainly Shiite Iran is a close ally of the beleaguered Syrian government, which is dominated by the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. (AP)