Syria: Prime minister Riad Hijab sacked; Opposition source tells CBS News he defected

9:26 AM, Aug 6, 2012   |    comments
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Syria's government said on Monday that Prime Minister Riad Hijab had been fired from his post - which he assumed just two months ago, but a spokesman for the premiere and opposition members said he had actually become the latest official to defect from President Bashar Assad's autocratic regime.

State-controlled Syrian TV made the announcement of his dismissal Monday morning without giving any further detail.

A reliable opposition source tells CBS News' Khaled Wassef that Hijab and his family have safely left Syrian territory.

Ahmad Kassim, a senior official with the Free Syrian Army, told the Associated Press that Hijab defected to Jordan along with three other ministers. The other ministers' identities were not immediately known. 

If confirmed, Hijab's would be only the latest in a series of defections of senior political and military defections from Syria. CBS News correspondent Holly Williams reports that as many as 20 Syrian generals are believed to have abandoned the regime already, with most of them believed to have joined the Free Syrian Army.

According to the Al Jazeera television network, the rebel Free Syrian Army secured the exit of Hijab and his family from Syria into neighboring Jordan. Al Jazeera quoted a spokesperson for Hijab as saying the defected premiere will "join the ranks" of the Syrian opposition.

Shortly before the announcement about Hijab, a bomb ripped through the third floor of the state TV building in Damascus, shattering several offices and wounding at least three employees, Syrian TV said.

The explosion was the latest in the Syrian capital, which has seen a string of suicide attacks and other bombings in the past few months as the country's civil war has escalated and the rebels grow bolder in their tactics. The TV building, which also houses state-run radio, is located at the Umawiyyeen roundabout in central Damascus.

After Monday's blast, the TV remained on air despite what was another severe breach of a state institution and a heavily guarded area in the Syrian capital. A bomb that exploded in the state security headquarters in Damascus on July 18 killed four of Syria's top security leaders.

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 said the bomb blast caused heavy material damage and light injuries among the employees.

"Syrian TV was not disrupted, and we will keep up our transmission no matter how some powers do their best to silence us," Zoubi told CBS News' George Baghdadi.

He blamed Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel for the attack. Syrian authorities accuse the Gulf countries and Israel of supporting the rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad's troops and fueling the insurgency in Syria.

Syria's rebels have grown increasingly confident 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 of Damascus.

On Saturday, gunmen snatched 48 Iranians just outside Damascus in a brazen attack. Iran said those abducted were pilgrims who were traveling on a bus taking them from the suburb of Sayeda Zeinab, about 10 miles south of Damascus, to the airport to return home when they were kidnapped.

But the Iranians' captors claimed in a video broadcast on Al-Arabiya TV station 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.

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