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Syrian prime minister defects from Assad regime (+video)

Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, a Sunni in Bashar al-Assad's Alawite-dominated government, is among the highest profile defectors to the opposition. 

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"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.

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Late on Sunday rebels clashed with the army in Aleppo's southeastern 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.

Ruins

Once a busy shopping and restaurant district where residents would spend evenings with their families, Salaheddine is now white with dust, broken concrete and rubble.

Tank shell holes gape wide on the top of buildings near the front line, and homes of families have been turned into look-outs and sniper locations for rebel fighters.

Large mounds of concrete are used as barriers to close off streets. Lamp posts lie horizontally across the road after being downed by shelling.

Civilians trickle back to collect their belongings and check on their homes. Late on Saturday, a confused old man stumbled into 15th street as rebels exchanged fire with the army.

"Get out of the way! Get off the street!" fighters shouted, grabbing him and taking him to shelter.

"I just wanted to buy some blackberry juice," he told the fighters, his face reflecting confusion and horror at the damage to his street. Instinctively, he took his personal ID card out of his chest pocket to show the rebels, a habit from the strict days of the Assad security officials.

During the day, others emerged from damaged buildings. A couple stood shaking with fear at an intersection a few metres from the fighting as a medic waved a car down to take them to safety.

"Just to hold power he is willing to destroy our streets, our homes, kill our sons," wept Fawzia Um Ahmed, referring to Assad's determined counter-offensive against the rebels.

"I can't recognise these streets any more."

Iranian support

Assad is supported by Shi'ite Iran and Lebanon's armed Shi'ite Hezbollah movement.

But the Sunni-ruled Muslim Gulf Arab states have called for rebels to be armed and Turkey has provided them with a base, angering Damascus and prompting Syrian state television on Sunday to refer to the rebels as a "Turkish-Gulf militia".

It said the bodies of Turkish and Afghan fighters had been found in Aleppo, without giving details.

On Sunday Syrian rebels said they were checking the identities of the captured Iranians to show that Tehran was involved in fighting for Assad, a rebel officer said.

Iran says the captives were pilgrims visiting holy sites in Syria, abducted from a bus in Damascus.

A senior Syrian intelligence officer defected to Jordan, Al Arabiya television reported on Sunday. It saidYarub Shara was head of the Damascus branch of Political Security, an intelligence organisation responsible for monitoring and suppressing dissent.

In Damascus, residents said the bodies of six Palestinians arrested during a security sweep by the army in the southern Tadamon district were discovered on Sunday. Another nine men were missing, they said. Accounts from the capital could not be verified because the government restricts access.

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