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In the middle of war, Assad picks Syria's new Cabinet

Syrian President Bashar Assad has changed seven Cabinet ministers. Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, not changed, said on Friday that the government is ready for dialogue with the opposition without precondition.

The Oil, Finance, Social Affairs, Labor, Housing, Public Works and Agriculture ministries were affected by the changes, announced Saturday. However, key departments such as Defense or Interior were not affected, according to the official state news agency, SANA.

The agency reported that Assad split the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, bringing in a woman, Kinda Shmat, for the latter. Hassan Hijazi takes over Labor. Assad apparently split the ministry to give Social Affairs responsibility for people internally displaced within Syria after nearly two years of fighting, a number estimated by the United Nations to be as high as 2 million.

Sleiman Abbas will head the Oil Ministry, and Ismail Ismail will take over at Finance. Hussein Farzat gets the Housing and Construction Ministry, Ahmad al-Qadri will lead Agriculture, and Public Works is now in the hands of Hussein Arnus.

Assad has announced several shuffles since Syria's uprising began in spring 2011. The most recent was last August.

'Without precondition'

In a television interview on Friday, Information Minister Al-Zoubi, who will keep his post for now, said that the government is ready to invite the opposition for dialogue - if the resistance lays down its weapons. He promised that anyone responding to the call would not be harmed.

"We believe in a Syrian national conference in Syria without preconditions and without sidelining anyone," al-Zoubi said in an interview aired on state TV.

The developments came as violence continued, especially in areas on the outskirts of Damascus, the capital, and in northern provinces where government forces are reported to have killed scores in the past day. Activists said that at least 110 died Friday in Damascus, where fighting has gone on for three days straight.

The United Nations reports that more than 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which has sent more that 700,000 Syrians to neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq as refugees. On Tuesday, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that 4 million people within Syria need urgent help.

mkg/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa)

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