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LINK: Syria's prime minister reportedly flees to Jordan

Fomer Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab, center, has reportedly defected from the government, though Syrian officials say he was sacked. (Associated Press / August 5, 2012)

August 7, 2012

BEIRUT — Syria's prime minister reportedly defected Monday, a stunning blow to a government already reeling from severe security breaches, a war-ravaged economy, international isolation and pitched battles throughout much of the country.

Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab was in Jordan with his family, according to media reports.

"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, according to Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite network. "I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution."

Syria's official news media issued a terse statement saying Hijab had been "dismissed" from his post under President Bashar Assad and replaced by a caretaker premier.

Hijab's departure, combined with earlier defections and recent audacious strikes by the rebels, illustrates what appears to be a growing lack of confidence within the ruling elite that Assad can survive a rebellion that is now in its 17th month.

The development Monday "only reinforces that the Assad regime is crumbling from within," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. "The Syrian people believe that Assad's days are numbered."

A spokesman for Hijab said the former prime minister had been working to leave Syria "for months," in conjunction with the Free Syrian Army, the rebel umbrella group. He apparently had already made up his mind to leave the government when Assad named him prime minister in June. A pair of ministers and several generals reported accompanied Hijab out of Syria.

Syrian state media issued a statement from the finance minister, Mohammad Jleilati, denying that he had quit his post. The opposition suggested that the finance minister issued the statement under duress.

Hijab's apparent act of defiance continues a trend of abandonment by high-ranking Sunni Muslims who have served under Assad, a member of the Alawite minority offshoot of Shiite Islam. Last month, those abandoning Assad included two prominent Sunni officials: Nawaf Fares, Syria's former ambassador to Iraq, and Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, son of a former defense minister. Dozens of high-ranking Sunni officers, including many generals, have also defected.