PARIS (Reuters) - A Syrian general and one-time friend of President Bashar al-Assad who fled Damascus this month is in France, President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday.
General Manaf Tlas, a member of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, had been reported to be in Paris with his family, but has yet to speak publicly since defecting. French officials had so far refused to confirm his presence in the country.
"We have been informed about this situation. He is here," Hollande said at a news conference with his Tunisian counterpart, Moncef Marzouki.
The general's father, Mustapha, defence minister under Assad's father for 30 years, lives in the French capital, as does his sister, the widow of a wealthy Saudi arms dealer.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on July 12 that Paris was aware that Tlas was in talks with the Syrian opposition about a possible role in efforts to oust Assad.
In an unauthenticated statement emailed to Reuters earlier on Tuesday and signed by General Tlas in Paris, the defector is quoted as saying he wants a "constructive transition that guarantees Syria's unity, stability and security as well as the legitimate aspirations of its people".
Neither his brother Firas nor Syrian opposition members in Paris were able to confirm the statement's veracity. A statement claiming to be from Tlas in the immediate aftermath of his defection on July 6 proved to be fake.
"I can only express my anger and pain to see the army forced to fight a battle against its own principles. It is a battle being led by security forces in which the people and ordinary soldiers are the victims," Tuesday's statement said.
Tlas is quoted as saying that he had refused to take part in the security crackdown and as a result had been isolated and accused of being a traitor.
"My conscience and convictions drove me to oppose and distance myself from this destructive crackdown," he said.
Syrian rebels battled government forces backed by air power and artillery on Tuesday in the fiercest fighting to hit Damascus since the revolt against Assad erupted more than 16 months ago.
The United Nations Security Council is due to vote on Wednesday on a Western-backed resolution that threatens Syrian authorities with sanctions if they do not stop using heavy weapons in towns, but Russia has said it will block the move.
Hollande said that if Russia wanted to restore order in Syria and avoid chaos and civil war, it needed to support a political transition without Assad.
"We will continue to apply pressure because it is not acceptable that every day there are massacres that are plunging not only Syria but the entire region into instability," he said.
(Reporting By Julien Ponthus, John Irish and Patrick Vignal; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alessandra Rizzo)
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