Rebels claim Syrian VP defects, regime denies

DAMASCUS (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 whether al-Sharaa had defected, but reported that 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.

There has been a stream of resignations by Syrian officials in recent weeks, including Republican Guard brigadier general 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.

Observers view Al-Sharaa's power and influence as more significant than the prime minister, who only served in the post for weeks. That's because he has long been a prominent and loyal member of the regime's old guard and had more political clout.

He served as foreign minister under both Bashar and his late father, Hafez, for more than 20 years and had been the vice president since 2006.

During Arab League meetings, Al-Sharaa had been mentioned in recent months as a possible successor to the president under a transition plan that would be similar to the one in Yemen, where the president left office and the vice president took over.

Recently, State TV showed him attending the funerals of the high-level government officials who were killed in the 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 during the latest crisis.

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

He said al-Sharaa left Damascus more than a week ago and fled to Daraa to try to secure the safety of relatives, close proteges and other officials working with him. Al-Sharaa is from Daraa province, which borders Jordan.

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

"We lost communications with our commanders in Daraa who were trying to get him to cross the borders to Jordan. We are extremely worried that the regime managed to detain some of his family members forcing al-Sharaa to surrender," Miqdad said. "We are trying to get him to a safe house with his family, and we will issue a press release once we get hold of our commanders on the ground who are handling this operation."

By Saturday morning, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency had removed al-Sharaa's profile from its website. SANA said a press release from al-Sharaa's office said that since the crisis began, he has been working "with different parties to end the bloodshed."

He had been operating "with the view of launching a political process in the framework of a comprehensive dialogue to achieve a national reconciliation that maintains the country's territorial integrity, regional safety and national independence far from any foreign military intervention," SANA said, citing the news release.

The release stressed al-Shara's welcome of the appointment of Lakhadar Brahimi as the UN new envoy to Syria and support for his commitment to obtaining a unified stance by the Security Council to carry out his difficult mission without obstacles.

The fighting continued Saturday, with renewed violence from both the ground and sky, opposition activists said.

Warplanes attacked the western city of Houla as regime tanks shelled parts of the Damascus area and bodies were found in the heavily shelled Damascus suburb of Al Tal, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said. At least 34 people were killed across the country Saturday, the opposition network said.

With no end to the country's civil war in sight, thousands more Syrians have fled across the border this week, a spokesman for the U.N.'s refugee office said.

At least 3,500 people arrived in Turkey within the past few days, spokesman Adrian Edwards said Friday. The number of formally registered Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan now totals at least 170,116, the United Nations said.

More than 17 months of violence in Syria has prompted concerns about the spread of disease, officials said Friday.

"We have heard through the Ministry of Health itself that an estimated 38 hospitals and 149 other clinics have been substantially damaged or destroyed, so this clearly worsens the access to health care," said Richard Brennan, director of emergency risk management for the World Health Organization.

"There are also concerns to the broader public health infrastructure, water supplies, sewerage systems and so on, and that's

why we are redoubling our efforts in monitoring the rates of disease and this early identification of increased rates of diarrhea in Damascus, in rural Damascus," Brennan said. "Our early investigations suggest that this is because of contamination of the water supply due to destruction of the sewerage system."

In the ongoing global effort to stop the bloodshed, an Algerian diplomat became the new U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria. Lakhdar Brahimi has been appointed to replace Annan, who resigned from his envoy post after months of fizzled attempts to broker peace in the war-torn country.

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