Syrian prime minister reportedly defects
BEIRUT -- Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab was reported Monday to have defected, delivering a stunning new blow to the embattled government of President Bashar Assad.
Hijab would be the most senior defector to date from the government, which is fighting a rebellion now in its 17th month and struggling to maintain control of the northern city of Aleppo.
Pan-Arab satellite network Al Jazeera reported that Hijab had arrived with his family in Jordan and joined the opposition.
"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 his spokesman, Muhammed el-Etri, Al Jazeera reported. "I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution."
Syrian state media announced in a terse report that Hijab had been "dismissed" and that a caretaker premier had been named in his place.
Hijab was appointed prime minister in June following a May parliamentary election that Assad called a centerpiece of his "reform" agenda but the opposition boycotted as a fraud.
The Assad government has suffered a number of high-profile defections, including diplomats and generals. But analysts say the government's core security and political leadership remains in place, especially those from Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Alawites dominate the security apparatus.
Hijab is a Sunni Muslim, like many other high-level defectors. The Syrian rebellion has risen up from Syrians in the disaffected Sunni majority.
Also on Monday, the government issued a statement from Finance Minister Mohammad Jleilati denying that he had defected.
Earlier, Syrian media reported that an apparent bomb exploded Monday at the broadcast center of Syrian state television and radio in Damascus, the capital.
The blast on the building's third floor caused a number of injuries, none serious, state media reported. State television continued broadcasting despite the apparent attack. Footage from the scene showed damage to office ceilings and employees fleeing from smoke-filled corridors.
All employees were safe, said Information Minister Omran Zoubi, who blamed the blast on terrorists, the usual government term for the armed opposition.
The Syrian opposition has targeted pro-government media in a tactic that has drawn criticism from human rights and media-freedom groups.
In June, gunmen targeted the pro-government Al Ikhbariya TV station outside Damascus, torching its offices and broadcast studio and killing several employees while taking others hostage. Free-media advocates and human rights activists condemned the attack.
A Syrian television news anchor, Mohammed Saeed, was reported abducted from his home last month and later slain. An Islamic Jihadist group, the Al Nusra front, took public responsibility for the kidnapping and killing. There was no official confirmation of the news anchor's death.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell and Rima Marrouch