UK & World News
Syrian General Defects To France
An international meeting in support of Syria's opposition has been boosted by the defection of a key military figure and friend of President Assad.
Manaf Tlas, a brigade commander in Syria's Republican Guard, is heading to Paris where the Friends of Syria group is meeting.
"I can confirm that he has defected and is on his way to France," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the delegates.
The son of a former defence minister, Mr Tlas went to military college with Bashar al Assad and would be the highest ranking regime figure to join the 16-month uprising against the president's rule if he joins the opposition.
Brig Gen Tlas's house in the capital was ransacked by security agents amid reports he had fled to Turkey earlier this week, a witness told Reuters.
"His defection is big news because it shows that the inner circle is disintegrating," an unnamed Western diplomat who knew Brig Gen Tlas in Damascus told the news agency.
"Manaf does not give the impression that he is a big thug, but he mattered in the military."
Opposition activists said Brig Gen Tlas had abandoned Damascus for France, where he has family, because of his anger at the mounting civilian death toll in Syria.
At least 90 people, most of them civilians, were killed in fighting across Syria on Thursday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Troops reportedly shelled the central town of Daraya while heavy fighting took place in Damascus.
Thousands of troops, including some mid-level commanders, have already defected to the rebel Free Syrian Army or fled to neighbouring countries.
Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said defections proved the Syrian government is crumbling. "There are soldiers escaping, they are reporting to us that they are being instructed to attack people and because of that they had to escape in order not to kill civilians," he told France 24 television. "Every day, generals, colonels, officers are coming, and we have, I think, around 20 generals and maybe 100 high-rank officers, colonels.
Representatives of around 100 nations in the Friends of Syria group discussed further economic sanctions against the Assad regime, transition planning and a call for a no-fly zone over Syria at the Paris meeting.
General secretary of the Syrian National Council Hassan Hashimi said a no-fly zone was needed to prevent government forces "flying over defected soldiers and civilians and bombarding them".
But military intervention is not on the horizon with the international preference being for more punitive measures against the Syrian government.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "We should go back and ask for a resolution in the Security Council that imposes real and immediate consequences for non-compliance (with Kofi Annan's peace plan), including sanctions."
She also urged other nations to show Russia and China they would pay a price for impeding progress toward a democratic transition in Syria.
"It is frankly not enough just to come to the Friends of the Syrian People (meeting) because I will tell you very frankly, I don't think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all - nothing at all - for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime."
Neither Russia nor China were at the Paris meeting, complaining that the process is one-sided in favour of the rebels.
Opening the meeting, French President Francois Hollande called on Mr Assad to go.
"It's in the interest of Syria, of its neighbours and everybody who wants peace in the region," he said.
Meanwhile, International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said Britain would contribute another £9m to helping those caught up in the violence in Syria.
It will help provide six months' emergency food for 82,000 people, shelter for more than 9,000 families in Syria and drugs for 1,000 patients with chronic diseases. Health, water and sanitation services will also be funded for 4,000 refugees who have fled over Syria's borders.