Nine Syrian judges defect amid opposition gains

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In video statement, posted On YouTube Sunday, the nine judges identify themselves by name as one of them reads a joint statement and urges others to break ranks with Assad.

Many government officials and army officers have abandoned the regime to join the opposition since the uprising started in March 2011.

Ex-Prime Minister Riad Hijab is the most senior Syrian official to defect so far.

Damascus has become a focal point of battles over the past week, as rebels effectively shut the international airport by clashing with Assad’s forces near there. Foreign flights have been suspended and residents say the airport road is closed.

Rebels who have called their campaign “Operation Opening the Road to Damascus”, uploaded video on Sunday that showed heavy gunbattles and explosions rocking several rural towns around the capital. The video also showed rebels firing a fully functioning tank which they had captured from the army.

But there is no clear winner yet in a battle where neither side seems to have advanced. The Syrian army has claimed many successes around the capital, airing footage on state television of soldiers raiding parts of the rebel stronghold of Deraya.

“Our noble forces in Deraya have destroyed some of the terrorist dens used by al Qaeda terrorists to store weapons and other criminal tools,” said a report on Syria TV, which usually refers to rebels as terrorists. “Many terrorists were killed.”

Syria’s opposition is dominated by members of the country’s Sunni minority. Assad’s regime is predominantly Alawite, an offshoot group of Shiite Islam.

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