A handout image released by the Syrian opposition’s Shaam News Network Thursday shows members of the Revolution Shield Brigade of the Free Syrian Army riding at the back of a pickup truck in Sarmada in Idlib province. — AFP
BEIRUT — In what would be the most high-profile defection from the inner circle of the Syrian leadership, Manaf Tlas, a friend of Bashar Al-Assad and a brigadier in his Republican Guard, was reported to have fled to Turkey.
Tlas, whose father Mustapha was defense minister under Assad’s father for 30 years, could not be reached for comment but several opposition sources said he had quit Damascus and a news website close to Assad’s security services quoted a Syrian official saying Tlas was now in Turkey.
An opposition source said he had spoken to a relative of Tlas who had told him Tlas fled Damascus Tuesday and had reached Turkey.
A witness in Damascus, who spoke anonymously, said Tlas’ house in the Syrian capital had been ransacked by security agents Thursday.
Syrian troops pushed into the opposition-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun Thursday, activists said. They said the security forces killed at least 11 people in an armored assault from the south at dawn after a fierce bombardment.
“They are burning houses and farms,” local activist Abu Al-Ghaith Al-Khani said, adding that 80 percent of residents had fled.
Syrian troops rained shells on several regions of the northwestern province of Idlib, a hotbed of anti-regime sentiment, as at least 56 people were killed in violence across the country.
In a defiant interview with a Turkish newspaper, Assad blamed the revolt on militants from hostile Arab states and a Western plot to break up Syria or stoke civil war.
Diplomatic efforts by a divided international community have so far been ineffective in stopping the violence. Western and Arab states who want Assad to step down to help end the crisis meet in Paris Friday.
Russia, which condemns outside backing for the Syrian opposition, dismissed suggestions that it might grant Assad political asylum.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described such rumors as “an attempt to mislead serious people dealing with foreign policy or a lack of understanding of Russia’s position.”
The UN refugee agency said up to 5,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Jordan over the past week from the bloodshed in their country, in a possible prelude to a large-scale influx. “Around 4,000 to 5,000 have crossed the borders this week, which is a large number,” the UNHCR representative in Jordan, Andrew Harper, said. .
Meanwhile, the secret-spilling group WikiLeaks said Thursday it was in the process of publishing material from 2.4 million Syrian emails — many of which it said came from official government accounts.
WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison told journalists at London’s Frontline Club that the emails reveal interactions between the Syrian government and Western companies, although she declined to go into much further detail.
Harrison quoted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as saying that “the material is embarrassing to Syria, but it is also embarrassing to Syria’s external opponents.”
WikiLeaks posted only a handful of the documents to its website Thursday and Harrison said her group was “statistically confident” that the body of material was genuine. She said the emails dated from August 2006 to March 2012 and originated from hundreds of different domains, including Syria’s ministry of presidential affairs. — Agencies