Syria seeks to punish ambassador who defected to rebel cause

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Syria’s ex-ambassador to Iraq has been sacked and should be punished after his defection to the opposition seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad, Syrian officials have said.

The foreign ministry said yesterday that Nawaf Fares had been “relieved of his duties” and should face “legal and disciplinary accountability”.

Mr Fares announced his defection in a video released on Wednesday, saying he was siding with “the revolution” against President Bashar Assad.

He is the highest profile diplomat to defect in the uprising and the second prominent figure to leave the regime in a week, suggesting some cracks in Mr Assad’s regime are appearing at senior levels although the core of the regime has remained loyal despite growing international pressure for a ceasefire.

Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defence minister, fled Syria last week, but has not spoken publicly and he does not appear to have joined the rebel side.

Opposition leaders and Western officials said they hoped Mr Fares’ defection would now encourage others to leave, too.

Syria’s unrest began with protests in March 2011, but has since evolved into an armed insurgency with scores of rebel groups across the country clashing with government troops and attacking their bases and convoys. Activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed.

The Syrian government blames the uprising on armed gangs backed by foreign powers to weaken the state. It says more than 4,000 members of the security forces have been killed.

In Paris, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari confirmed Mr Fares’ defection, saying he had quit while outside Iraq.

Mr Fares condemned Mr Assad’s regime in a statement broadcast on the Al-Jazeera television news channel.

“Where is the honour in killing your countrymen? Where is the national allegiance? The nation is all the people, not one person in particular,” he said. “The allegiance is to the people, not to a dictator who kills his people.”

It was unclear where he recorded the statement and his whereabouts remained unknown yesterday.

Appointed to the Baghdad post four years ago, Mr Fares was the first Syrian ambassador to Iraq in 26 years. Like Gen Tlass, he is a member of the privileged Sunni elite in a regime dominated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said it had found evidence that the Syrian government had fired cluster bombs in an area near the central city of Hama.

The US-based group said the munitions are clearly identifiable in amateur videos posted online.