Syria’s top diplomat in UK abandons Assad as fighting intensifies

Syria’s top diplomat in Britain has defected to the opposition, saying he could no longer represent the regime, as thousands of civilians fled the city of Aleppo amid fierce battles between rebels and government forces which have gone on for ten days.

The Foreign Office said that Khaled al-Ayoubi, the Syrian charge d’affaires, said that he was not willing to represent the regime any longer, the latest high-profile defection of a diplomat from Syria over the bloody crackdown on the opposition since March 2011.

Fighting is intensifying in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub and its largest city, with a population of about three million. The UN said 200,000 Syrians have left over the past ten days as the government trains its helicopter gunships on the districts seized by the rebels.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Aleppo is only 30 miles from the Turkish border and some of those fleeing the city are headed there. Tens of thousands of Syrians have already found refuge in Turkey during the 17-month uprising against authoritarian president Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Turkey is deploying more troops to the border, sending tanks, armoured vehicles, missile launchers and infantry, the state-run Anadolu agency reported.

Greece has responded by yesterday quadrupling the number of guards on its borders with Turkey out of fear of a potential influx of Syrian refugees.

Those fleeing Aleppo have described incessant shelling, shortages of food and petrol and soaring black market prices for everyday staples. In videos posted online they can be seen scurrying through streets against a backdrop of gunfire and climbing onto any form of transportation available to escape, including trucks, cars and even heavily laden motorcycles.

“Dozens of families are packing their belongings and leaving in cars and trucks,” said an activist in a village near Aleppo.

“They are only taking light possessions that they can carry, like a few clothes, some valuables and that’s it.

“I saw cars with eight, nine people packed in them fleeing the bombing.”

He added that rebels had seized a nearby checkpoint early in the morning and captured several tanks. The regime responded by shelling the rural area just north-west of the city.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Videos of the attack on the checkpoint posted online yesterday show fierce exchanges of fire in the early morning and then later, victorious rebels hauling out boxes of ammunition and taking heavy machine guns for the fight in Aleppo.

The activist said refugees have fled to nearby villages where they stay with relatives or find shelter in local schools. Some however, are making the trip to the Turkish border.

Syrian state media reported that the army had “purged” Aleppo’s south-western neighbourhood of Salaheddine and inflicted “great losses” upon the rebels in one of the first districts they took control of in their bid to seize the city.

Activists, however, disputed these claims and described another day of fierce shelling of certain areas, backed up by the occasional foray on the ground. The assault has knocked down power lines and the neighbourhood was without electricity.

General Babacar Gaye, the head of the United Nations Observer Mission in Syria, expressed concerned over the ongoing violence in Aleppo, noting that “helicopters, tanks and artillery are being used”.

Gen Gaye spoke during a visit to Rastan, just outside Homs in central Syria, which has witnessed heavy fighting. Footage from his trip showed burnt out tanks by the side of the road and many destroyed buildings.

Mr Ayoubi is the fourth high-ranking envoy to defect. He was preceded by the charge d’affaires in Cyprus and her husband, a diplomat in the UAE, and by the ambassador to Iraq.

A Foreign Office spokesman said Mr Ayoubi was staying in a safe location in the UK and was in contact with British officials.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Turkey also reported that the deputy head of security for Syria’s Latakia region, a regime stronghold, had defected as well.

The brigadier-general was among a group of 12 Syrian officers who crossed into Turkey late on Sunday. His defection makes a total of 28 generals who have left for Turkey since the start of the 17-month-old uprising.

However, Syria’s army remains mostly intact, and still vastly outguns the rebel forces, who are armed for the most part with assault rifles and machine guns and do not have the heavy weapons necessary to effectively oppose tanks and helicopter gunships.