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Syrian general defects

| Saturday, March 16, 2013, 9:12 p.m.

One of the highest-ranking military officers yet to abandon Syrian President Bashar Assad defected to neighboring Jordan and said in an interview aired on Saturday that morale among those still inside the regime has collapsed.

In another setback for the Assad regime, a leading human rights group accused Syria's government of stepping up its use of widely banned cluster munitions, which often kill and wound civilians.

The twin blows illustrated the slowly spreading cracks appearing in Assad's regime as well as its deepening international isolation. While few analysts expect the civil war between Assad's forces and rebels seeking his ouster to end soon, most say it appears impossible for the 4-decade-old regime to continue to rule Syria.

Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ezz al-Din Khalouf announced his defection from Assad's regime in a video aired on Saturday on the Al-Arabiya satellite channel. It showed him sitting next to his son, Capt. Ezz al-Din Khalouf, who defected with him.

The elder Khalouf said that many of those with Assad's regime have lost faith in it, yet continue to do their jobs, allowing Assad to demonstrate broad support.

“It's not an issue of belief or practicing one's role,” he said. “It's for appearance's sake, for the regime to present an image to the international community that it pulls together all parts of Syrian society under this regime.”

Khalouf also said fighters from the Lebanese military group Hezbollah were fighting in Syria in “more than one place,” but he did not give further details.

The Syrian government did not immediately comment on the defection. It portrays the uprising as a foreign-backed conspiracy to weaken Syria being carried out by terrorists on the ground.

Seif al-Hourani, an activist from one of the rebel groups that helped get Khalouf and his family out of the country, said via Skype that Khalouf's son made contact with rebels about six months ago and leaked them information before he asked for help in getting the family out of Syria.

That process took almost a week because of violence in the southern province of Daraa, the easiest place to shuttle Khalouf across the border.

Six days ago, rebels smuggled Khalouf, his wife and three of their children out of Damascus, the capital.

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