AMMAN - Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab has defected to the opposition seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad, a spokesman for Hijab said on Monday, marking one of the most high profile desertions from the Damascus government.
Syrian state TV said Hijab had been fired, but an official source in Amman said the dismissal followed his defection to neighboring Jordan with his family.
"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. I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution," Hijab said in a statement read in his name by the spokesman, which was broadcast on Al Jazeera television.
Syrian state TV announced Hijab's dismissal as government forces appeared to prepare a ground assault to clear battered rebels from Aleppo, the country's biggest city.
Assad appointed Hijab, a former agriculture minister, as prime minister only in June following a parliamentary election which authorities said was a step towards political reform but which opponents dismissed as a sham.
"Hijab is in Jordan with his family," said the Jordanian official source, who did not want to be further identified. The source said Hijab had defected to Jordan before the announcement of his sacking.
Syrian TV said Omar Ghalawanji, who was previously a deputy prime minister, had been appointed to lead a temporary caretaker government on Monday.
Earlier in the day, a bomb blast hit the Damascus headquarters of Syria's state broadcaster as troops backed by fighter jets kept up an offensive against the last rebel bastion in the capital.
The bomb exploded on the third floor of the state television and radio building, state TV said. However, while the rebels may have struck a symbolic blow in their 17-month-old uprising against Assad, Information Minister Omran Zoabi said none of the injuries was serious, and state TV continued broadcasting.
Rebels in districts of Aleppo visited by Reuters journalists seemed battered, overwhelmed and running low on ammunition after days of intense tank shelling and helicopter gunships strafing their positions with heavy machinegun fire.
Emboldened by an audacious bomb attack in Damascus that killed four of Assad's top security officials last month, the rebels had tried to overrun the Damascus and Aleppo, the country's commercial hub.
But the lightly armed rebels have been outgunned by the Syrian army's superior weaponry. They were largely driven out of Damascus and are struggling to hold on to territorial gains made in Aleppo, a city of 2.5 million.
Damascus has criticized Gulf Arab states and Turkey for calling for the rebels to be armed, and state TV has described the rebels as a "Turkish-Gulf militia", saying dead Turkish and Afghan fighters had been found in Aleppo.
Paralysis in the UN Security Council over how to stop the bloodshed forced peace envoy Kofi Annan to resign last week, his ceasefire plan a distant memory.
The violence has already shown elements of a proxy war between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam which could spill beyond Syria's border. The rebels claimed responsibility for capturing 48 Iranians in Syria, forcing Tehran to call on Turkey and Qatar - major supporters of the rebels - to help secure their release.
On Monday, Syrian army tanks shelled alleyways in Aleppo where rebels sought cover a helicopter gunship fired heavy machinegun fire.
Snipers ran on rooftops targeting rebels, and one of them shot at a rebel car filled with bombs, setting the vehicle on fire. Women and children fled the city, some crammed in the back of pickup trucks, while others walked on foot, heading to relatively safer rural areas.
The main focus of fighting in Aleppo has been the Salaheddine district, a gateway into the city. One shell hit a building next to the Reuters reporting team, pouring rubble on to the street and sending billows of smoke and dust into the sky.
State television said Assad's forces were "cleansing the terrorist filth" from the country, which has been sucked into an increasingly sectarian conflict that has killed about 18,000 people and could spill into neighboring states.
The army appeared to be using a similar strategy in Aleppo to the one used in other cities where they subjected opposition districts to heavy bombardment for days, weakening the rebels before moving in on the ground, clearing district by district.
Syria's two main cities had been relatively free of violence until last month when fighters poured into them, transforming the war. The government largely repelled the assault on Damascus but has had more difficulty recapturing Aleppo.
Rebel commanders say they anticipate a major Syrian army offensive in Aleppo and one fighter said they had already had to pull back from some streets after army snipers advanced on Saturday under cover of the fierce aerial and tank bombardment.
"The Syrian army is penetrating our lines," said Mohammad Salifi, a 35-year-old former government employee. "So we were forced to strategically retreat until the shelling ends," he said, adding the rebels were trying to push the army back again.
Late on Sunday rebels clashed with the army in Aleppo's south-eastern Nayrab district, a fighter who called himself Abu Jumaa said. The army responded by shelling eastern districts. There were also clashes on the southern ring road, which could be a sign the army was preparing to surround the city.
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