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“The criminal Assad pressed him to become a prime minister and left him no choice but to accept the position. He had told him: ‘You either accept the position or get killed,’” said Otari, who told the AP that Hijab and his family planned to travel on from Amman to Qatar.

“The prime minister defected from the regime of killing, maiming and terrorism. He considers himself a soldier in the revolution,” the aide said.

David Hartwell, a Mideast analyst at IHS Jane’s think tank in London, said the months of reported preparation to defect opens the possibility that Hijab could have been in touch with rebels before his appointment as prime minister. He said that could “point to a serious breakdown in inner-regime security.”

Syria’s official SANA news agency said the Cabinet held an emergency session hours after a replacement was named for Hijab. Meanwhile, in a rebel base just near the Turkish border, fighters celebrated the news of Hijab’s defection even as their forces faced withering attacks in Aleppo.

“If the people who are benefiting from the regime are defecting, then this shows that it is living its last days,” a fighter who identified himself as Abu Ahmad told the AP by telephone from the northeastern Syrian town of Jarablous. “Every time our youth hear that an officer or an official defected, it boosts their morale.”

George Sabra, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council, said Hijab is a symbol of the state and added that he expected his desertion to usher in a chain of others.

“He has finally discovered that this regime is an enemy of its own people and is destined to fall, and he chose to join the ranks of those who defected before him,” Sabra told AP. “This will trigger a chain of other defections by Syrian senior government and security officials,” he added. “The Syrian regime is drowning, and this is the clearest sign yet.”

Syria’s rebels have grown increasingly bold and capable in recent months. In July, the rebels and Syrian regime forces fought intense battles for a week in Damascus in what was the opposition fighters’ biggest challenge so far in the capital.

In a brazen daylight attack, rebels commandeered a bus and snatched 48 Iranians just outside Damascus on Saturday. Iran said those abducted were pilgrims who were visiting a shrine about 10 miles (six kilometers) south of Damascus and were on their way to the airport to return home.

But the captors claimed in a video broadcast Sunday that one of the captives was an officer of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards and that the 48 were on a “reconnaissance mission” for Assad’s close allies in Tehran.

Halaby reported from Amman, Jordan. AP writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Bassem Mroue in Hatay, Turkey, and Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.