Al-Assad tasks official with forming ‘new government’ in Syria

Riyad Farid Hijab, who has been agriculture minister since April, was chosen for the assignment, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

In recent months, the Syrian regime has touted what it calls “political reforms” in light of a yearlong uprising that has spawned international condemnation of the government’s bloody crackdown on dissidents.

In a public speech Sunday, al-Assad cited recent parliamentary elections as proof that his country is progressing.

Yet relentless reports of brutality and killings at the hands of his regime suggest the Syrian crisis is far from over.

Intense shelling from tanks targeted a residential area in the Damascus suburbs, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said Wednesday. Heavy shelling, powerful explosions and heavy gunfire also tormented the anti-government bastion of Homs, the group said.

Despite the incessant turmoil, the Syrian government said it will let the United Nations enter the country and deliver humanitarian aid to people in need.

“After a long time of very intense negotiations, we now have an agreement in writing with the Syrian government on the scale, scope and modality of humanitarian action in Syria,” said John Ging, director of operations at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“Whether it’s a breakthrough or not will depend on the action on the ground. I cannot predict what that will be, but we will work very hard to make it a breakthrough, because the people of Syria need us to break through with a much bigger humanitarian response.”

Ging said Tuesday that the Syrian government has signed a memorandum that describes the planned humanitarian response for the approximately 1 million people who need aid urgently.

‘Audacious steps’ needed in Syria, Arab diplomats says

Meanwhile, Syria announced it was expelling diplomats from 11 countries. The tit-for-tat move came a week after those nations expelled Syrian officials in response to a gruesome massacre in the town of Houla.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry said diplomats from the United States, Britain, Switzerland, Turkey, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany and Canada were being declared persona non grata.

Among them is U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, who has been in the United States since February, when the U.S. government closed its embassy in Damascus.

But a U.S. official said Ford will keep working. “This certainly isn’t going to stop Ambassador Ford from continuing his important outreach to the Syrian people,” Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington. “He’s going to continue our efforts to support a peaceful political transition for which the Syrian people have so bravely fought.”

Residents of Houla, where at least 108 people were killed — almost half of them children — pleaded via Skype for basic necessities.

“For more than 10 days now, the criminal regime forces have cut off basic food items from entering Houla area,” the statement from the opposition Houla Media Center said.

“They stopped flour, gas and medicine from coming in, and they continue to cut off electricity because the main supplying plant was hit by the sporadic shelling,” the group said. “We call on relief and human rights organizations to help us and open humanitarian corridors for basic items so you do not become collaborators in the (regime’s) massacres.”

Al-Assad’s regime denies responsibility for the massacre and has said it is fighting to stop “armed terrorist groups” — the same vaguely defined entities it has blamed throughout the 15-month crisis.

Opposition activists and residents have said pro-regime forces shelled the city before going house to house, lining up residents and shooting them.

The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011. Opposition activists put the toll higher, with estimates of at least 12,000 to 14,000.

The opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported that 51 people were killed across the country Tuesday.

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