DAMASCUS (AFP) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday sacked his vice-premier who had been absent without leave and held unauthorised meetings abroad, the official Sana news agency said.
The move follows media reports that Mr Qadri Jamil, a vice-premier for economic affairs, had met with the US pointman for Syria, Ambassador Robert Ford, on Saturday in Geneva to discuss proposed peace talks.
Sana said Mr Jamil was sacked after an "absence without authorisation from his post" as well as "activities and meetings outside the country without authorisation from the government."
According to a political source in Syria, Mr Jamil had proposed joining the opposition delegation to peace talks and that Ford had said he could not represent both sides at once.
Mr Jamil himself told the Lebanon- based Arab satellite channel Al-Mayadeen that he planned to return to Damascus and defended his meetings abroad.
"Our meetings with international parties to halt the bloodbath in Syria are legitimate," he said.
Opposition National Coalition spokesman Louay Safi said the incident showed that "the regime is in the process of falling apart... Qadri Jamil perhaps felt the ship is sinking."
A Lebanese newspaper reported that Mr Jamil and his family have been living for the past several weeks in Moscow, where the former member of the Syrian communist party had studied economics.
Mr Jamil later founded his own party, the People's Will, which participated in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011 that escalated into a rebellion after a crackdown by Assad.
As part of the tolerated domestic opposition, he helped draft a new constitution last year and then participated in legislative elections before being named vice premier.
The United States and Russia have been struggling to convince Syria's warring parties to attend peace talks in Geneva next month aimed at ending the civil war, which has killed an estimated 115,000 people.
UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was in Damascus Tuesday as part of a regional tour to rally support for the talks following a rare US-Russian accord to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons.
The talks remain in doubt, however, with Syria's increasingly fractured rebels having yet to say whether they will attend.
The National Coalition has said it will not take part in the Geneva talks unless Assad's resignation is on the table - a demand rejected by Damascus - while several rebel groups have warned that anyone who attends will be considered a traitor.
Assad has also cast doubt on the talks, and has said he will not negotiate with any group tied to the rebels fighting his forces or to foreign states.