Just weeks after its parliamentary elections, Syria's besieged leadership announced the formation of a new government, state-run media reported Saturday.
Riad Hijab, who served as minister of agriculture and agrarian reform, is the new prime minister, President Bashar al-Assad said in a decree. A longtime member of the ruling Baathist party, Hijab also governed the Syrian provinces of Latakia and Quneitra during his political career.
But the country's top diplomat, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, is keeping his post. Two top security officials, Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha and Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar are staying in their jobs as government forces clamp down on an anti-regime uprising.
The Syrian government -- which has asserted its support of reform and change during the 15 months of unrest -- touted a "wide turnout" for its May parliamentary elections, when more than 7,000 candidates vied for 250 parliamentary seats.
Members of the opposition regarded the elections as a sham. They said a vote for any of the candidates amounted to a vote for al-Assad, whose family has ruled the country for 42 years. They argued that the government is only interested in maintaining its power by any means and urged Syrians to boycott the elections.
Government forces shelled northern Syria with helicopters Saturday, opposition activists said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 50 people died across the country on Saturday. The number includes 10 regime soldiers killed when they were trying to defect.
Since the anti-government uprising started in March last year, more than 15,000 people in Syria, mostly civilians, have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The United Nations has said that at least 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Opposition groups say the violence began when a government crackdown on peaceful protesters generated a nationwide uprising. Syria consistently blames terrorists for the violence. The government on Saturday said it buried 68 security personnel killed by terrorists groups.
In Syrian hospital, no escape from war
World powers have been working to avoid a full-blown civil war and a U.N. and Arab League-backed peace initiative has failed to take hold. Fears of a wider conflict heightened in the Middle East on Friday when Syrian artillery shot down a Turkish military jet.
The act comes as Syrian-Turkish ties have worsened during the anti-government uprising. Turkey, which hosts Syrian opposition groups and thousands of Syrian refugees, has been outspoken in its criticism of the al-Assad regime.
A Syrian military spokesman quoted by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency on Saturday said Syrian forces struck "an unidentified aerial target that violated Syrian airspace."
The craft -- flying "at a very low altitude and at high speed over territorial waters" -- crashed in Syrian territorial waters near Latakia province, the spokesman said. Syrian authorities eventually learned that the target was the Turkish jet.
Turkey's President Abdullah Gul said Saturday that the craft may have entered Syria's airspace, according to the semi-official Anatolia news agency.
"When you take in to account the speeds at which jet planes travel over the sea, it is routine for planes to go in and out of borders," he is quoted as saying by the news agency. "It is something that happens without bad intentions and that happens due to the high speeds."
The search for the plane continues, he said, speaking in Kayseri, central Turkey.
"It is not possible to cover something like this up. Whatever needs to be done will be done, without a doubt," he said, according to Anatolia.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the incident "serious" and hopes both sides handle the situation with "restraint" via "diplomatic channels."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, whose country neighbors Syria, said his government's "main concern is the spillover of the crisis" into the region.
"If this conflict were to turn in an all-out sectarian or civil war Iraq will be affected, Lebanon will be affected, Jordan will not be immune, Turkey could be," he said.
"We don't want to see chaos reign in the region, in the neighborhood and that's why Iraq should have a say, a role in what is going to go in Syria, no country can ignore or bypass Iraq in this regard."
Kofi Annan, the special envoy to Syria for the Arab League and the United Nations, urged countries to use their pull on the combatants to stop the fighting. He is also planning an international meeting to discuss next steps on Syria.
"It is time for countries of influence to raise the level of pressure on the parties on the ground, and to persuade them that it is in their interest to stop the killing and start talking," he told a news conference on Friday in Geneva, Switzerland.
"The longer we wait, the darker Syria's future becomes. This process cannot be open-ended," Annan said. "It is urgent that our consultations