BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's interior minister, wounded in a Damascus bombing, headed home on a private jet Wednesday after treatment in Beirut, airport officials said, despite calls from some Lebanese to put him on trial for Syrian actions in their country.
Mohammed al-Shaar's departure coincided with the defection of the commander of Syria's military police.
Officials at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport said al-Shaar left Beirut and was flying to Damascus. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Al-Shaar was wounded on Dec. 12 when a suicide bomber exploded his vehicle outside the Interior Ministry, killing five and wounding many, including the minister.
The Syrian government denied at first that al-Shaar was wounded. Then it emerged that he was brought to a Beirut hospital last week for treatment. The same minister was wounded when a bomb went off on July 18 during a high-level crisis meeting in Damascus, killing four top officials.
It was not clear if al-Shaar's treatment was completed or if he left because of political pressure. Lebanese are deeply divided over the Syria crisis.
The two neighbors have a long and bitter history.
Syrian forces moved into Lebanon in 1976 as peacekeepers after the country was swept in 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. Widely accused of involvement — something it has always denied — Syria was forced to withdraw its troops. Even so, Damascus has maintained power and influence in Lebanon.
In the 1980s, al-Shaar was a top intelligence official in northern Lebanon when Syrian troops stormed the port city of Tripoli and crushed the Islamic Unification Movement. Hundreds of people were killed in the battles in 1986, and since then, many in northern Lebanon have referred to al-Shaar as "the butcher of Tripoli."
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 development, the general who heads Syria's military police defected and joined the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime, one of the highest walkouts by a serving security chief during the country's 21-month uprising.
Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal appeared in a video aired on Al-Arabiya TV late Tuesday saying he is joining "the people's revolution."
Al-Shallal's defection comes as military pressure builds on the regime, with government bases falling to rebel assault near the capital Damascus and elsewhere across the country.
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 women and children.
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.
The Observatory said the shelling in an agricultural area of Raqqa province near the village of Qahtaniyeh killed 20, including eight children, three women and nine others.
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.
Syria's crisis began with protests demanding reforms but later turned into a civil war. Anti-regime activists estimate more than 40,000 have died in the past 21 months.
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."
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