Syria's former defence minister Ali Habib 'breaks with Assad'

AMMAN (REUTERS) - Former Syrian defence minister General Ali Habib, a prominent member of President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, has defected and is now in Turkey, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition told Reuters on Wednesday.

"Ali Habib has managed to escape from the grip of the regime and he is now in Turkey, but this does not mean that he has joined the opposition. I was told this by a Western diplomatic official," Mr Kamal al-Labwani said from Paris.

If his defection is confirmed, Mr Habib would be the highest-ranking Alawite figure to break with Mr Assad since the uprising against his rule began in 2011.

A Gulf source told Reuters that Mr Habib defected on Tuesday evening, arriving at the Turkish frontier before midnight with two or three other people. He was then taken across the border in a convoy of vehicles.

Born in 1939, Mr Habib was defence minister from June 2009 to August 2011 and has also served as chief of the general ataff of the Syrian Army. He is from the port city of Tartus.

Some opposition sources say Mr Habib disagreed with the use of force against protesters at the start of the revolt in 2011. Those sources say he was dismissed as minister for his opinion about the use of force. He later said he had left the post for health reasons.