Assad names new PM, army pounds rebels

Fighting in the Mediterranean province of Latakia

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad named a Baath Party stalwart to form a new government on Wednesday, signalling no political concessions to a 15-month-old uprising, as helicopters and tanks pounded rebels near the Mediterranean coast. 

The appointment of Riyad Hijab, agriculture minister in the outgoing government, as prime minister follows a parliamentary election last month which authorities said was a step towards political reform but which opponents dismissed as a sham. 
"We expected Assad to play a game and appoint a nominal independent but he chose a hardcore Baathist," said opposition campaigner Najati Tayyara. The new government, like its predecessors, would wield no real power, he added. 
"The cabinet is just for show in Syria and even more so now, with the security apparatus totally taking over."   

Activists said army helicopters and tanks attacked rebel positions in the coastal province of Latakia for a second day on Wednesday, in the heaviest clashes there since the revolt against Assad erupted in March last year. 

The relentless violence has shredded an eight-week-old ceasefire deal brokered by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan. Rebels, who say they are no longer bound by the accord, have killed 100 soldiers this week, according to one monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 

Russia called for a broad international meeting, including regional powers Turkey and Iran, the Arab League, European Union and major U.N. Security Council members, to rescue Annan's plan.  

The British-based Observatory said rebels seized control of police and intelligence buildings in the Latakia town of Selma overnight, before army reinforcements arrived at dawn. 

The soldiers killed a rebel captain in Selma and six civilians in Haffeh, a mostly Sunni Muslim area where clashes have been most intense, it said.   

Local activists provided shaky footage of a Syrian helicopter firing rockets. A member of the rebel Free Syrian Army in Latakia said its lightly-armed fighters faced shellfire.   

"There was heavy fighting all night. In the morning, Syrian forces started shelling Selma and Haffeh," the FSA's Ali al-Raidi told Reuters by telephone.   

Syria heavily restricts access to international media organisations, which Damascus says have contributed to inciting violence, making it hard to verify reports from either side.  

More than 35 people were reported killed on Tuesday and Assad's forces also suffered heavy casualties with at least 26 soldiers killed, many in ambushes by insurgents.    

The clashes were a rare surge of violence in Latakia province, home to several towns inhabited by members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, which has been generally hostile to the mostly Sunni-led uprising.    

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for a broad international meeting on the crisis in Syria with the aim of reviving Annan's peace plan, but made clear he believed Assad's opponents were responsible for its failure so far. 

Western powers also support Annan's peace plan but say pressure must be stepped up against Assad after the massacre of 108 women, children and men in Houla nearly two weeks ago. They hold Assad's forces responsible, a charge Damascus rejects. 

"We believe it is necessary to assemble a meeting of states with real influence on different opposition groups. There are not that many," Lavrov said in Beijing, where he is accompanying President Vladimir Putin at a security summit.   

"It is all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, leading countries in the region, it is Turkey; one should not forget Iran, the Arab League, Organisation of the Islamic Conference; the EU could contribute, I think," he added. 

"The goal of such a meeting - different to the Friends of Syria meetings which are devoted to supporting Syria's National Council and its radical demands - would be for all external players to agree, honestly and without double standards, to fulfil Kofi Annan's plan because we all supported it."   

The Friends of Syria, a loose grouping of mainly Western and Arab countries that want an end to Assad's rule, have held several meetings since February to coordinate steps against him. 

Moscow, which says the talks could undermine Annan's efforts, has used its U.N. Security Council veto and other tools to protect Assad, a client for Russian weapons who has given Russia its firmest foothold in the Middle East.   

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