* U.N. to pull out "non-essential" international staff
* Heavy bombardment, clashes in and around Damascus
* Clinton says U.S. will act if Syria uses chemical weapons
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Erika Solomon
CAIRO/BEIRUT, Dec 3 A Syrian foreign ministry
spokesman, who was the most public face of Bashar al-Assad's
government as it battled a 20-month-old uprising, has defected
and fled the country, a diplomat in the region said on Monday.
Jihad al-Makdissi, who is in his 40s, previously worked at
the Syrian embassy in London and returned to Damascus a year ago
to serve as spokesman for the ministry, defending the
government's crackdown on the revolt against Assad's rule.
He had little influence in a system largely run by the
security apparatus and the military. But Assad's opponents will
see the loss of such a high profile figure, if confirmed, as
further evidence of a system crumbling from within.
Rebel forces have made advances in recent weeks, seizing
several military bases including some outside the capital
"He defected. All I can say is that he is out of Syria," the
diplomatic source, who did not want to be named, told Reuters.
Lebanon's al-Manar Television, citing government sources,
said Makdissi was sacked for making statements that did not
reflect the government's position.
Makdissi belongs to Syria's Christian minority, which has
largely stood behind Assad. He worked with the foreign ministry
for 10 years and speaks fluent English, a rarity in a state
apparatus shaped by the ruling Baath Party's anti-Western
He was rarely seen in the media in recent weeks. His mobile
telephone was switched off and there was no immediate comment in
Syrian state media. The pan-Arab news channel Al Arabiya said
Makdissi had left Beirut and was on his way to London, where he
was expected to remain.
The army has been striking back and appears to have focused
most of its energy on Damascus, where rebels have been planning
to push into the capital from the surrounding suburbs.
The military has been trying to seal off the capital, using
heavy bombardment and air raids to try to drive rebels back.
Over 56 people were killed ar ound Damascus al one on Sunday, with
200 dead across the country.
The city itself has not been free of unrest. Rebel-held
southern districts have been bombarded heavily, activists say.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported fierce clashes
around the Tishreen military hospital in the northern Barzeh
district and a car bomb in the southern area of Tadamon.
Neither side appears to have the upper hand in the fighting
around Damascus. A previous attempt by rebels last July to hold
ground in the city was crushed, but the fighters fell back into
the suburbs and nearby countryside.
Clashes and tensions also remain high around Damascus
International Airport and along the airport highway, which has
become an on-and-off battleground that forced foreign airlines
to suspend flights to Damascus since Thursday evening.
EgyptAir, which attempted resume flights on Monday after a
three-day halt, had to call back a plane headed to Damascus due
to the "bad security situation" around the airport, an official
from the airline said.
The conflict has grown increasingly bloody in recent
months, particularly as rebels began to contest Assad's power
around the capital as well as in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
More than 40,000 people have died in the conflict, with hundreds
more killed each week.
The United Nations said on Monday it was withdrawing "all
non-essential international staff" from Syria because of
deteriorating security, and was restricting remaining staff to
Damascus. It said more armoured vehicles were needed following
attacks on humanitarian aid convoys sometimes caught in the
Rebels have begun to advance more quickly after months of
slow sieges to cut off army routes and supplies. In the past few
weeks, they seized several military bases, and they are now
using anti-aircraft weapons to attack the military helicopters
and fighter jets that bombarded their positions with impunity
Media reports citing European and U.S. officials said
Syria's chemical weapons had been moved and could be prepared
for use in response - long a fear raised by the opposition.
Syria said on Monday it would not use chemical weapons
against its own people after the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton warned that Washington would take action against any
"Syria has stressed repeatedly that it will not use these
types of weapons, if they were available, under any
circumstances against its people," the foreign ministry said.