Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab defects from Assad regime

DAMASCUS, SYRIA (BNO NEWS) -- Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab on Monday announced his defection from the Assad government and said he is joining the opposition, his spokesman told reporters. It is the highest-profile defection since the uprising began nearly 1.5 year ago.

The news came shortly after the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that Hijab had been fired. "President Bashar al-Assad on Monday issued Decree No 294 on dismissing Prime Minister Riyad Hijab from his post," the agency said in a brief report, adding that Local Administration Minister Omar Ibrahim Ghalawanji was appointed interim prime minister.

Hijab's spokesman, Muhammad el-Etri, later read a statement to reporters in which Hijab announced he is joining 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 was quoted as saying, according to Al Jazeera. "I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution."

Etri, who said the defection had been planned for months in cooperation with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), denied that Hijab had been fired from his post. He said the government announced Hijab had been fired when officials realized the prime minister had fled the country, Al Jazeera reported.

Also on Monday, Finance Minister Mohammad Jleilati and Religious Endowments Minister Mohammad Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed rejected media reports that they too had defected from the Assad regime. "I am a Syrian citizen before being a minister," Jleilalti said, adding that he was working freely.

al-Sayyed also rejected the reports, calling the rumors of his defection "dreams and illusions" spread by misleading media organizations, according to a statement he provided to the SANA news agency. The minister added that "no one can defect from his homeland, morals or values."

The UN estimates that more than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria and tens of thousands displaced since the uprising against President al-Assad began nearly 1.5 year ago. The opposition believes the number of deaths has already surpassed 20,000.

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