Syria’s ruling party elects new command amid war

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s ruling Baath party elected a new regional command Monday to replace its aging leadership, including the country’s longtime vice president, as government forces closed in on a key rebel-held neighborhood in central Syria.

In a further blow to the opposition fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, opposition prime minister Ghassan Hitto resigned from his post, citing his inability to form an interim government.

Both symbolic developments came during a spike in violence in the central Syrian city of Homs, where government forces began an offensive 10 days ago to recapture opposition-held districts.

Syria’s state-run television said the new Baath Party command, which is the party’s top decision-making body, was chosen during a meeting of the party’s central committee.

A senior Baath Party official, Fayez Sayegh, said the reshuffle was mean to pump in new blood in the party. He said longtime Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa was among those replaced.

Al-Sharaa, 73, is a close associate and longtime loyalist to the Assad family.

Syria’s Baath party has been ruling Syria since 1963. The meeting was scheduled to take place earlier but was postponed because of the violence engulfing the country.

Hitto was little known before he was appointed in March by the Western-backed Syrian National Council opposition group to head an interim government to administer areas seized by the rebels fighting to topple Assad.

In a statement issued Monday, he said he was stepping down “for the general good of the Syrian revolution.”

Hitto is mistrusted by other opposition members who dislike his perceived proximity to the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood. He had been effectively sidelined since his appointment — a result of the rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia who are vying for influence among the Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition. Both countries have been prominent backers of forces struggling to oust Assad.

A former Syrian political prisoner with close links to Saudi Arabia, Ahmad al-Jarba, was elected to lead the coalition Saturday.

The coalition is headquartered in Egypt, and in another blow to the group, Egyptian authorities began imposing travel restrictions Monday on Syrians, requiring them to get visas before arriving in the country, officials there and opposition figures said.

Syrian opposition figure Haitham Maleh said he was among those denied entry Monday.

Egyptian airport officials said the new measures followed reports that a large number of Syrians in Egypt were backing the Muslim Brotherhood and took part in violence after the ousting of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Those claims could not be independently confirmed.

The airport officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

Violence in Syria continued Monday, as two car bombs exploded in a predominantly Alawite and Christian neighborhood of Homs, killing at least four people and wounding 29, a local official in the city said. The explosions in the neighborhood of Akrama point to the Syrian conflict’s increasing slide into sectarian killings. A similar car bomb struck the same area few weeks ago.

Activists confirmed the explosions but had no further details.

Assad’s forces have launched a major offensive to retake Homs, a transport hub that sits between the capital, Damascus, and coastal areas overwhelmingly loyal to the regime. Rebels seeking his ouster have held on to parts of the city they took more than a year ago, but remain under siege.

Forces loyal to Assad have pummeled their way into the Khaldiyeh neighborhood with constant mortar fire and tanks shelling, allowing them to gain control of eastern parts of the district, said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the British-based Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors clashes. He estimated government forces had seized 11 buildings in Khaldiyeh. Overall, he said the government now controls about 20 percent of the area.

“They are advancing,” Abdul-Rahman said in a telephone interview. He said there were street battles elsewhere in Homs, while the army continued to pound other rebel-held areas with heavy weapons.

A Syrian government official earlier had claimed that the army wrested the entire district and was “cleaning” out rebel-held pockets. He gave no other details and requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

Two activists based in the city denied the claim, saying rebels were under heavy fire but still holding on.

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Diaa Hadid can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/diaahadid.

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