Syrian army soldiers stand on an army tank in the village of Buweida, north of Qusayr, in Homs province on June 8, 2013
Syrian army soldiers stand on a tank in the village of Buweida, in Homs province on June 8, 2013. Syrian troops have advanced into the rebel-held Khaldiyeh district of central Homs, with shelling intensifying as forces battled for a 10th day in the area, activists and an NGO said. © - AFP/File
Syrian army soldiers stand on an army tank in the village of Buweida, north of Qusayr, in Homs province  on June 8, 2013
AFP
Last updated: July 8, 2013

Syrian army advances in Khaldiyeh district of Homs

Syria's ruling Baath party replaced its top leadership in a surprise move on Monday, while in Turkey, interim rebel prime minister Ghassan Hitto announced his resignation.

The political developments come as troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad advanced into the rebel-held Khaldiyeh district of Homs on the 10th day of an assault there.

The Baath party reshuffle, its first since 2005, includes the replacement of Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, although he will keep that post.

Assad urged the party to "develop" and work more closely with the people to help end the country's 27-month war, state media said.

The party's central committee published the names of 16 members of the new leadership, which included none of the party's old chiefs with the exception of Assad, who will remain secretary general.

Among those newly elected to the leadership are parliament chief Jihad al-Laham and Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi.

"The party must develop in step with reality on the ground, and promote a culture of dialogue and voluntary action by the people," Assad said, cited by state news agency SANA.

He said the party needed "to put in place new... criteria for the selection of party representatives, in order for them to be able to achieve (society's) objectives".

Bassam Abu Abdullah, director of the Damascus Centre for Strategic Studies, said the overhaul was the result of deep-seated party discontent.

"There has been a lot of criticism from within the base towards the leadership, which has been accused of being inflexible, both before and since the crisis," he said, of the uprising.

A second analyst noted that the new leaders include a former ambassador, Syria's ex-envoy to Egypt Yussef Ahmad, for the first time.

"They've decided to bring in a younger leadership that is seen as more open to the international community," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The Baath party has been in power since March 8, 1963.

The move comes against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict in Syria, which began in March 2011 with peaceful anti-government protests but has become a bloody civil war estimated to have killed more than 100,000 people.

In Istanbul, Turkey, as the main opposition National Coalition ended a five-day meeting rebel premier Ghassan Hitto announced his resignation, which the Coalition accepted.

Hitto quit nearly four months after his appointment and after failing to form a government.

His decision comes two days after secular dissident Ahmad Assi Jarba was chosen to lead the opposition.

Jarba is seen as close to Saudi Arabia, which opposed the choice of Hitto to head the interim government in March.

Dissidents say Hitto, who is close to the opposition's Islamist ranks and who was backed by Qatar, was unable to work because of divisions within the Coalition.

Hitto said he resigned in order "to help... the Coalition's new leadership to act according to its political vision, especially with regards to the interim government and its executive functions".

In a statement, the Coalition said "it will start accepting candidacies for the post of prime minister in 10 days' time".

On the ground, the army pressed a fierce assault on besieged districts of the central city of Homs, dubbed "the capital of the revolution" by activists.

State media reported two car bombings in a regime-held area in the city, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported five killed in one of them, in the Akrameh district..

Most residents of Akrameh are, like Assad, members of the Alawite community.

"The ruthless campaign against Homs is continuing for the 10th day in a row" activist Abu Bilal told AFP via Skype.

"Regime forces have been able to enter parts of Khaldiyeh after heavy shelling and scorched-earth tactics."

He said the assault was the fiercest in Homs since the uprising began.

The United Nations has estimated some 2,500 people are trapped amid the fighting there.

Meanwhile, Syria's ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari said Damascus has invited two senior UN officials for talks on the alleged use of chemical weapons in the conflict.

The UN says Damascus has barred its investigators from examining claims by Britain and France of chemical weapons use by regime forces at Khan al-Assal and Homs last December.

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