Pressure grows on Assad as interior minister is forced to flee Lebanon

Free Syrian Army fighters at rest in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Picture: Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters at rest in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Picture: Reuters
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ONE of president Bashar al-Assad’s ministers was forced to flee a hospital in Lebanon yesterday as the commander of the Syrian government’s military police defected to the rebels – making him one of the most senior members of Mr Assad’s inner circle to join the opposition during the 21-month-old uprising.

Wounded interior minister Mohammed al-Shaar was forced to flee a Beirut hospital over fears he would be arrested for his role in a 1986 crackdown by Syrian troops in Lebanon.

Al-Shaar, wounded in a bombing of his ministry in Damascus, left a Beirut hospital before his treatment was finished and flew to Damascus on a private jet, officials at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport said.

In another significant blow to the Assad regime, Major General Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal announced he was defecting, accusing the army of becoming “a gang for killing and destruction”.

A leading Lebanese security official said the interior minister was rushed out of Lebanon after authorities there received information that international arrest warrants could be issued against him because of his role in the crackdown against protesters in Syria.

He was injured earlier this month when a suicide bomber exploded his vehicle outside the interior ministry, killing five and wounding many others. He was taken to the hospital in neighbouring Lebanon a week ago.

Over the past week, some Lebanese officials have called for al-Shaar’s arrest for his role in a 1986 crackdown in the northern city of Tripoli.

In the 1980s, al-Shaar was a leading intelligence official in northern Lebanon when Syrian troops stormed Tripoli and crushed the Islamic Unification Movement – a Sunni Muslim group that then supported former Palestine Liberation Organisation chief, Yasser Arafat.

Hundreds were killed in the battles and since then, many in Lebanon have referred to al-Shaar as “the butcher of Tripoli”.

The Lebanese security official said Lebanese citizens had also begun taking steps to sue al-Shaar for his role during Syria’s military domination of Lebanon for decades. Lebanese are deeply divided over the Syria crisis.

Al-Shaar and other Syrian officials are also on a list of people subjected to European Union sanctions for violence against anti-regime protesters in Syria.

Meanwhile, the defection of the military police chief came as military pressure builds on the Assad regime, with government bases falling to rebel assault near the capital Damascus and elsewhere across the country.

Maj Gen Al-Shallal appeared in a video aired on Al-Arabiya TV late on Tuesday saying he is joining “the people’s revolution.”

Dozens of generals have defected since Syria’s crisis began in March 2011, but Maj Gen Al-Shallal is one of the most senior and held a top post at the time that he left.

He said in the video that the “army has derailed from its basic mission of protecting the people and it has become a gang for killing and destruction.”

In continued violence yesterday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government shelling in the north-eastern province of Raqqa killed at least 20 people, including eight children, three women and nine others. An agricultural area near the village of Qahtaniyeh was hit by the shelling.