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Syria Ambassador Said To Have Abandoned Assad
Syria's Ambassador to Iraq has reportedly defected in protest at President Bashar al Assad's military crackdown on the 16-month popular uprising.
Syrian opposition sources said Nawaf al Fares was closely linked to the security establishment.
If the claims of his defection are true, he would be the first senior Syrian diplomat to have abandoned the Assad regime.
Mr Fares is from Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria, which was the scene of a ferocious military onslaught by Assad's forces.
"This is just the beginning of a series of defections on the diplomatic level. We are in touch with several ambassadors," said Mohamed Sermini, of the main exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council.
Mr Fares is a Sunni Muslim, while the power structure in Syria is dominated by members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, related to Shi'ite Islam.
His apparent defection has dealt another serious blow to Assad, an authoritarian leader who has been in power since 2000.
Mr Fares' move followed the high-profile flight abroad of General Manaf Tlas, who had been a close friend of Assad and a leading light among Sunni supporters of the President.
The uprising is being waged by rebels largely from Syria's Sunni majority.
News of the supposed defection came as Western powers on the UN Security Council are poised to present a draft resolution on Syria seeking to increase the pressure on Assad.
The United States, Britain and France are being briefed by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan after which they will put their proposals to the 15-nation council.
Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council has failed to persuade Russia to abandon Assad, following talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Moscow said dropping its support of Assad would only prolong the violence, but Abdel Basset Sayda, the head of the exiled SNC, reacted angrily to the failure.
"We reject the Russian policy - however it is presented - as this policy of supporting the regime is allowing the violence to continue," he told reporters after the talks.
"The Syrian people continue to suffer because of the position of Russia at the UN Security Council where Russia has used its veto to block two resolutions against Assad's regime," he said.
"As a result, the killings and shootings continue and the Syrian regime is using these weapons that Russia gave to Syria against its own people."
Sixteen months into the conflict, monitors say more than 17,000 people have been killed.
The latest clashes are said to be taking place in Qada, a district of Damascus, but no further details were immediately available.