Syria's prime minster and three other top officials have defected to neighboring Jordan, the Associated Press reported.

Riad Hijab, who state-run TV said was fired earlier in the day, is the highest-ranking official to defect since the conflict started 17 months ago. Hijab took office just two months ago after country-wide elections took place. Before this post, he was the agriculture minister.

The identities of the three other ministers were not released.

Later Monday, Hijab spokesman Mohammad Otri told AFP he will leave Jordan for Qatar within days. "Hijab will go to Doha, where international media are based," Otri told AFP. "He will leave for Qatar tomorrow, the day after or after a few days."

President Bashar al-Assad's forces are preparing for a powerful ground assault on the country's largest city, Aleppo, on Monday. Rebels have launched several guerrilla attacks on government forces in that city, Reuters reports.

Meanwhile, state-run TV in Damascus was hit by a bomb blast on Monday. Officials say the symbolic attack caused only light injuries and no casualties. Troops backed by Assad are also launching an offensive against remaining rebel bastions in the Syrian capital.

Last week, the United Nations passed a resolution denouncing the violence that has plagued the war-torn nation and Kofi Annan, the U.S. special envoy, resigned from his post .

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