The commander of Syria's military police has become one of the highest-profile figures to defect from Bashar al-Assad's regime after claiming that the country's armed forces had been turned into "murderous gangs".
Major General Abulaziz al-Shalal appeared in a video on Al Arabiya TV to say that he was leaving the "regime army" to join the "people's revolution".
Dozens of generals have defected since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, but Maj Gen Shalal is one of the most senior. As the leader of the security branch charged with punishing disciplinary failures within the Syrian army, his decision is particularly embarrassing for the Syrian president.
"The army has deviated from its essential mission, which is to protect the country, and it has morphed into murderous, destructive gangs," Maj Gen Shalal said.
He added that "the destruction of cities and villages, and the commission of massacres against our people, defenceless civilians, who took to the streets calling for freedom" had prompted him to defect.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar, who was wounded in a suicide bombing on December 12 in Damascus and was brought to Beirut for treatment a week ago, left the hospital early and flew home to Damascus on a private jet, officials at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport said.
A top Lebanese security official said that al-Shaar was rushed out of Lebanon after authorities there received information that international arrest warrants could be issued against him because of his role in the deadly crackdown against protesters in Syria.
News of al-Shalal's defection came as the opposition watchdog the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 20 people, including eight children, were killed by regime shelling in an agricultural area in the north of the country.
Amateur footage showed a dozen bodies, including those of children, laid out in a room. Blood was splattered over some of the clothing of the victims and cries of despair could also be heard in the background.
There were further signals that the regime was coming under heavy pressure. Syrian foreign ministry officials headed to Moscow amid reports of a US-Russian initiative for a transition in Syria. Formerly a dependable international ally of Mr Assad, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, distanced himself from the regime last week by recognising that a "change (in leadership) is certainly on the agenda".
The talks are also expected to discuss proposals for ending Syria's 21-month-old crisis apparently made by envoy Lakhdar Brahimi during his Damascus visit. (© Daily Telegraph, London)