Several key figures in Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime have been secretly planning to defect to the opposition if Damascus' hold on power is shaken any further, the Daily Telegraph reported Friday.
According to the report, several top members of Assad's inner circle "have begun planning exit strategies and establishing lines of communication with the rebels to discuss how they would be received if they deserted."
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A Syrian Air Force colonel became the first senior officer to defect on Thursday, after he decided to abort an attack mission on Dera'a and landed his MiG 21 fighter jet in Jordan.
Syrian jet in Jordan (Photo: AFP)
A Washington source quoted by the British newspaper confirmed that several top officials were preparing to flee: "We are seeing members of Bashar Assad’s inner circle make plans to leave," he said.
Syrian opposition groups said that they were "actively courting" the United States' help to encourage defections.
"I know for sure there are some high-ranking officers who are waiting for the right chance to defect. We have names of people in the presidential palace. There are rumors that there is one who is really close to the president and we are expecting to see him out of the country soon," the Telegraph quoted a senior opposition source as saying.
Meanwhile, Washington denied reports that it had guaranteed Assad's safe passage to Geneva to meet opposition leaders.
Washington said it was not its role to decide Assad's fate, but outside pressure nevertheless built on his regime, following a report the CIA was now vetting the flow of arms provided by Middle Eastern powers to Syrian rebels.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said there was "no truth" to a report that Assad could be offered safe passage to Geneva for a conference on Syria that could take place this month.
"Issues of accountability in cases like this when you have grave human rights abuses against your own people are fundamentally a decision for the people of the country to make... we would not presume to speak for them."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said there was no sign that Assad was ready to exit and accept the power transition the United States demands.
AFP contributed to this report
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