BEIRUT – Syria’s wounded interior minister rushed home from a Beirut hospital Wednesday for fear he would be arrested after some Lebanese called to put him on trial for his role in a 1986 crackdown by Syrian troops in Lebanon.
In another blow to President Bashar Assad, his commander of military police defected.
The defector, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal, one of the most senior member of the Assad’s inner circle to join the opposition in the 21-month-old uprising against authoritarian rule. He appeared in a video aired on Al-Arabiya TV late Tuesday saying the army has been turned into a gang to kill and destroy.
Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar, wounded in a bombing of his ministry in Damascus, left a Beirut hospital before his treatment was finished and flew home to Damascus on a private jet, officials at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport said.
Al-Shaar was wounded on Dec. 12 when a suicide bomber exploded his vehicle outside the Interior Ministry, killing five and wounding many. He was brought to the hospital in neighboring Lebanon a week ago.
A top Lebanese security official told the Associated Press that al-Shaar was rushed out of Lebanon after authorities there received information that international arrest warrants could be issued against him because of his role in the crackdown against protesters in Syria.
Over the past week, some Lebanese officials and individuals have called for al-Shaar’s arrest for his role in a 1986 crackdown in the northern city of Tripoli.
In the 1980s, al-Shaar was a top intelligence official in northern Lebanon when Syrian troops stormed Tripoli and crushed the Islamic Unification Movement – a Sunni Muslim group that then supported former Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat. Hundreds of people were killed in the battles and since then, many in northern Lebanon have referred to al-Shaar as “the butcher of Tripoli.”
The Lebanese security official said Lebanese citizens had also begun taking steps to sue al-Shaar for his role during Syria’s military domination of Lebanon for decades. Lebanese are deeply divided over the Syria crisis.
Al-Shaar and other Syrian officials are also on a list of people subjected to European Union sanctions for violence against anti-regime protesters in Syria.
“Lebanese officials contacted Syrian authorities and that sped up his departure,” said the security official, adding that a Lebanese medical team is expected to go to Damascus to continue al-Shaar’s treatment there. “If such arrest warrants are issued, Lebanese judicial authorities will have to arrest him and this could be an embarrassment for the country,” he said.
The airport and security officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The Syrian government denied at first that al-Shaar was wounded. Then it emerged that he was brought to the Beirut hospital last week for treatment. It was the second time the minister was wounded in the civil war. He was also injured when a bomb went off on July 18 during a high-level crisis meeting in Damascus, killing four top security officials.
Lebanon and Syria have a long and bitter history.
Syrian forces moved into Lebanon in 1976 as peacekeepers after the country was swept into a civil war between Christian and Muslim militias. For nearly 30 years that followed, Lebanon lived under Syrian military and political domination.
That grip began to slip in 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut. Syria was widely accused of involvement – something it has always denied – and Damascus was forced to withdraw its troops. Even so, Damascus has since maintained considerable power and influence in Lebanon.
Shortly after he arrived in Beirut for treatment last week, anti-Syrian politicians, including legislators Jamal Jarrah and Mohammed Kabbara, called for al-Shaar’s arrest. Another call came this week, when Lebanese lawyer Tarek Shandab filed a complaint to the country’s prosecution accusing al-Shaar of “genocide and ethnic cleansing” in Tripoli.
In another setback for the regime, the defection of the military police chief came as military pressure builds on the regime, with government bases falling to rebel assault near the capital Damascus and elsewhere across the country.
The defector al-Shallal appeared in a video aired on Al-Arabiya TV late Tuesday saying he is joining “the people’s revolution.”
Dozens of generals have defected since Syria’s crisis began in March 2011. In July, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass was the first member of Assad’s inner circle to break ranks and join the opposition.
Al-Shallal is one of the most senior and held a top post at the time that he left. He said in the video that the “army has derailed from its basic mission of protecting the people and it has become a gang for killing and destruction.” He accused the military of “destroying cities and villages and committing massacres against our innocent people who came out to demand freedom.”
Thousands of Syrian soldiers have defected over the past 21 months and many of them are now fighting against government forces. Many have cited attacks on civilians as the reason they switched sides. Anti-regime activists estimate more than 40,000 have died in the past 21 months.
In violence on Wednesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government shelling in the northeastern province of Raqqa killed at least 20 people, including eight children, three women and nine others. An agricultural area near the village of Qahtaniyeh was hit by the shelling.
An amateur video showed the bodies of a dozen people including children lying in a row inside a room. Some of them had blood on their clothes, while weeping could be heard in the background.
The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.
Also Wednesday, activists said rebels were attacking the Wadi Deif military base in the northern province of Idlib. The base, which is near the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan, has been under siege for weeks.
In October, rebels captured Maaret al-Numan, a town on the highway that links the capital Damascus with Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a major battleground in the civil war since July.
The attack on Wadi Deif comes a day after rebels captured the town of Harem near the Turkish border. The rebels have captured wide areas and military posts in northern Syria over the past weeks.
In Lebanon, airport officials in Beirut said Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and Assistant Foreign Minister Ahmad Arnous flew early Wednesday to Moscow.
Their visit to Moscow comes two days after Assad met in Damascus with Lakhdar Brahimi, the international envoy to Syria. Brahimi, who is scheduled to go to Moscow as well, gave no indication of progress toward a negotiated solution for the civil war.
Brahimi is still in Syria and met Tuesday with representatives of the opposition National Coordination Body, state-run news agency SANA said. The head of the group, Hassan Abdul-Azim, said Brahimi briefed them on his efforts to reach an “international consensus, especially between Russia and the United Stated to reach a solution.”
NCB spokesman Rajaa al-Naser said his group said there must be an end to violence and formation of a “transitional government with full prerogatives.”