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updated: 7/8/2013 9:38 AM

Syria's ruling party elects new command amid war

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Associated Press

BEIRUT -- Syria's ruling Baath Party announced Monday it elected a new regional command to replace its aging leadership, including the country's longtime vice president, as its two-year civil war rages on.

The largely symbolic change comes during a spike in violence in the central Syrian city of Homs, where government forces closed in on a key rebel-held neighborhood after 10 days of fierce fighting.

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.

On Monday, 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.

Roving street battles raged in contested districts of Homs as government forces closed in on the neighborhood of Khaldiyeh, 10 days after the start of an offensive.

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 neighborhood with constant mortar fire and tanks shelling, allowing them to gain control of eastern parts of Khaldiyeh 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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