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Rebels say Syrian vice president defects, regime denies claim

posted Aug 19, 2012, 6:44 PM by Steve Zyck   [ updated Aug 20, 2012, 1:07 PM by Syrian Transition ]

18 August 2012 (CNN) Conflicting reports emerged Saturday about whether Syria's vice president has defected.

A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army said Saturday that Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa has fled the regime.

Syrian state-run TV did not explicitly say if al-Sharaa had defected, but it reported the vice president's office issued a statement saying al-Sharaa "has never at any moment thought of leaving the homeland to whatever direction."

If al-Sharaa did defect, it would mark the highest-level departure from President Bashar al-Assad's regime yet.

The news comes amid a stream of resignations by Syrian officials in recent weeks, including Republican Guard Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas and Prime Minister Riyad Hijab. Like al-Sharaa, the men are Sunnis who held top posts in a government dominated by the country's Alawite minority.

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Rafif Jouejati, a spokeswoman for the Local Coordination Committees of Syria opposition network, said al-Sharaa's defection would suggest "the regime is collapsing very quickly."

"If confirmed, (this) represents yet another high-level official who sees that the al-Assad regime is a sinking ship," she said. "I expect to see additional defections in both the military and civilian sectors in the coming days."

Observers view al-Sharaa's power and influence as more significant than the prime minister, who only served in the post for weeks. He has more clout having long been a prominent, loyal member of the regime's old guard having served as foreign minister under al-Assad and his late father, Hafez, for more than 20 years and vice president since 2006.

Recently, state TV showed him attending funerals of high-level government officials killed in a July blast in Damascus. Al-Sharaa headed meetings with the former U.N. and Arab League point man on Syria, Kofi Annan, and international officials visiting Syria.

Louai Miqdad, the spokesman for the rebel army, said al-Sharaa left Damascus more than a week ago and fled to Daraa to try to make sure his relatives, close proteges and other officials would be secure. Al-Sharaa is from Daraa province, the area bordering Jordan where the regime's violent crackdown against protesters began in March 2011.

The rebel spokesman said he thinks the Syrian regime intensified attacks in Daraa province recently to assassinate al-Sharaa before he left the country.

"Farouq al-Sharaa did defect, but we were trying to get him through to Jordan," Miqdad told CNN on Saturday.