Syria's defected PM Riad Hijab says Assad regime on "verge of collapse"

(CBS/AP) AMMAN, Jordan - Syria's defected prime minister said Tuesday that Bashar Assad's regime was near collapse and urged other political and military leaders to tip the scales and join the rebel side.

"The regime is on the verge of collapse morally and economically," Riad Hijab told a news conference in his first public comments since leaving his post and fleeing to Jordan with his family last week. Hijab is the highest-ranking political figure to defect from Assad's regime.

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According to the Reuters news agency, Hijab asserted that Assad's regime "no longer controls more than 30 percent of Syrian territory."

He said he felt "pain in his soul" over the regime's shelling and other attacks on rebel strongholds as the government stepped up its military offensive. Activists say more than 20,000 people been killed in the struggle since March 2011.

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"I was powerless to stop the injustice," he said, speaking in front of the rebel flag.

He called on "honorable leaders" in Syria to defect.

"Syria is full of honorable officials and military leaders who are waiting for the chance to join the revolution," he said.

"I urge the army to follow the example of Egypt's and Tunisia's armies — take the side of people," he added.

Hijab said he was now backing the rebels, but gave no clue on his plans. There had been speculation that he would travel to the Gulf nation of Qatar, which is one of the rebels' main supporters.

Meanwhile, the fighting raged on in the north of Syria, where opposition members reported fierce clashes near the town of Sarmada, near the border with Turkey. The Assad regime was using as many as 25 tanks and armored vehicles, as well as attack aircraft to try and push the Free Syrian Army rebels out of the area, opposition members claimed.

The battle is a crucial one, as which ever side wins will control most of the border with Turkey, from which a great deal of the rebels supplies come.

Also Tuesday, United Nations emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos arrived in Damascus to try and forge a deal with the regime to get more humanitarian supplies into parts of the country which have become cut off by the spiraling violence.

"She's there to express her grave, grave concern over the situation," spokesman Jens Laerke told journalists, according to the Reuters news agency. "She will look at the situation on the ground and discuss with the government and humanitarian partners how to scale up the response in Syria."

Thousands of refugees have poured out of Syria since the uprising against Assad's rule began 18 months ago - many of them across the Turkish border.

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