Syrian Brigadier-General Manaf Tlas who defected to Turkey on Thursday, according to Reuters, has left Damascus and is on his way to Paris, a close family friend told the news agency on Friday.
Tlas, who headed a unit of the elite Republican Guard and was a long-time ally of President Bashar al-Assad, arrived in Turkey on Thursday from Syria and was making his way to France where his father Mustafa Tlas, a former defense minister, now lives, said the family friend.
Over 100 nations met in Paris on Thursday in a “Friends of Syria” meeting to discuss an end to the 16-month bloody crisis in Syria, which activists claim has killed more than 16,500 people.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed on Friday Tlas had defected and was bound for Paris.
“I can confirm that he has defected and is on his way to France,” Fabius told the meeting of world leaders and the Syrian opposition in Paris.
Tlas is the highest-ranking military officer to have abandoned the Syrian regime and was accompanied by 23 other defected officers, according to Reuters.
“A high-level security source has confirmed the fleeing of General (Manaf) Tlas to Turkey,” the Syriasteps website, which has links to the Syrian security apparatus, said late Thursday.
It quoted a security official as saying: “His escape does not mean anything.”
“If Syrian Intelligence had wanted to arrest him it would have done so,” the official added.
Syrian opposition campaigners and Free Syrian Army rebel sources said they had information that Tlas was in Turkey but did not consider him a defector until he makes an announcement.
“We think he has made it to Turkey but he has not contacted us. There is a difference between leaving Syria and joining the opposition to Assad,” a Syrian opposition source said from Istanbul.
A total of 66 people fled into Turkey from Syria on Wednesday, including the general and two colonels as well as soldiers and their families, a Turkish diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Turkey has become home to dozens of soldiers who have crossed the border. Defectors have formed the Free Syrian Army in opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Around 35,000 displaced Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey since the start of a bloody uprising in March 2011.