Middle East

Syria deputy oil minister resigns to join opposition

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Media captionAbdo Hussameddin said he was joining "the revolution of this dignified people"

A Syrian deputy oil minister says he is resigning to join the revolt against the government.

Abdo Hussameddin, 58, announced his defection in a video posted on YouTube.

He is the highest level political figure to abandon the government of President Bashar al-Assad since the uprising erupted a year ago.

Earlier, after a visit to the city of Homs, the UN humanitarian chief said some areas had been "devastated" in the offensive by Syrian government troops.

Valerie Amos said the bombed-out Baba Amr district, which was heavily shelled by before being retaken from rebels by government troops, felt like it had been closed down entirely.

"The devastation there is significant, that part of Homs is completely destroyed and I am concerned to know what has happened to the people who live in that part of the city," Baroness Amos told Reuters news agency.

Activists say troops committed massacres after they went in to the district, but Damascus blames the rebels for many deaths.

On Thursday, a network of Syrian activists, the Local Co-ordination Committees, said 44 people were killed in what it called a "new massacre" by security forces in the Jobar district of Homs.

It said the deaths were among 56 latest fatalities in the crackdown across Syria.

International media organisations are heavily restricted in Syria, making it impossible to verify the claims of either side.

The UN says more than 7,500 people have died as a result of the violence in Syria over the past 12 months.

'Driven by barbarism'

Abdo Hussameddin, who is one of two deputy oil ministers, posted his video on YouTube late on Wednesday.

Wearing a jacket, collar and tie, and sitting in a high-backed armchair, he read out a four-minute denunciation of the regime he said he had served in one capacity or another for the past 33 years.

"I, Abdo Hussameddin, deputy oil and mineral wealth minister in Syria, announce my defection from the regime, resignation from my position and withdrawal from the Baath Party," he said.

"I am joining the revolution of the people who reject injustice and the brutal campaign of the regime."

Mr Hussameddin, who had served as deputy oil minister since August 2009, added: "I tell the regime, which claims to own the country, you have nothing but the footprint of the tank driven by your barbarism to kill innocent people."

He said he was stepping aside although he knew that his house would be burnt and his family persecuted by the regime.

An activist who shot the video and posted it on YouTube told AFP news agency in Beirut that the opposition had helped to arrange the resignation.

The Syrian government has not publicly commented on Mr Hussameddin's announcement.

Observers say public defections have been rare among civilian officials of the Syrian state, which is controlled by President Assad's minority Alawite sect.

However, there have been high-profile defections from the military, including Gen Mustapha al-Sheikh who fled to Turkey earlier this year. Also thousands of chiefly Sunni soldiers and conscripts are reported to have deserted since the start of the uprising.

A spokeswoman from the opposition National Transitional Council of Syria said she believed many more cabinet members and their deputies were prepared to defect.

The BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says the deputy minister's resignation would appear to signal growing strains within the regime, as the violence intensifies, and the economy comes under increasing stress because of sanctions.

'No to force'

In further diplomatic efforts to halt the violence, special envoy Kofi Annan is due to meet representatives of both sides in Damascus at the weekend.

Speaking after talks in Cairo on Thursday, Mr Annan, joint envoy for the UN and Arab League, rejected military intervention in Syria.

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Media captionOne woman told the BBC's Paul Wood how two of her brothers were detained, and one was killed

"I hope no-one is thinking very seriously of using force in this situation. I believe further militarisation will make the situation worse," he said after meeting Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi.

Separately, Beijing announced on Thursday that its envoy had talks in Syria this week with representatives of the government and the opposition.

China's foreign ministry said envoy Li Huaxin met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and his deputy during a two-day visit.

Observers say Mr Li's visit is Beijing's latest attempt to counter charges by Western and Arab leaders that by vetoing two previous UN resolutions, China and Russia have aided the growing violence by Syrian government forces.

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