Syrian President Bashar Assad, battling a popular uprising, named a former agriculture minister and staunch loyalist as prime minister on Wednesday to form a new government after last month's parliamentary election.

State television said Riyad Hijab replaces Adel Safar, who was appointed in April last year shortly after the revolt began in the south and later spread across the country, presenting Assad with the sternest challenge to his 12-year rule.

In a speech to parliament on Sunday, Assad said the new government would "take into account the new political forces" after the May 7 election, held under a revised constitution which allowed for new political parties to be established.

Most Syrian opposition figures boycotted the parliamentary election and a prominent dissident said that by appointing Hijab, a committed member of the ruling Baath Party, the president was snubbing demands for change.

"We expected Assad to play a game and appoint a nominal independent but he chose a hardcore Baathist," opposition campaigner Najati Tayyara said. "In any case the cabinet is just for show in Syria and even more so now, with the security apparatus totally taking over".

Russia call for Iran, Turkey to join meeting

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on Wednesday for a broader international meeting on the crisis in Syria to include Iran and Turkey, with the aim of supporting a faltering peace plan brokered by envoy Kofi Annan.

"We believe it is necessary to assemble a meeting of states with real influence on different opposition groups. There are not that many," Lavrov said in Beijing, where he is accompanying President Vladimir Putin at a security summit.

"It is all permanent members of the UN Security Council, leading countries in the region, it is Turkey; one should not forget Iran, the Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference; the EU could contribute, I think," he added.

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"The goal of such a meeting - different to the Friends of Syria meetings which are devoted to supporting Syria's National Council and its radical demands - would be for all external players to agree, honestly and without double standards, to fulfill Kofi Annan's plan because we all supported it."

France plans to stage a meeting in Paris by early July of the Friends of Syria - a coalition of countries that want President Bashar Assad's rule to end.

Russia said in April the Friends of Syria group was "destructive" and could undermine Annan's peace efforts.

Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, urged international support on Tuesday for UN envoy Annan's peace plan for Syria, despite calls from Arab and Western states for a tougher response to the bloodshed.

The show of unity from Putin and Hu showed how reluctant they will be to abandon Annan's plan, which they see as the most viable path to peace in Syria. Western and Arab governments blame forces loyal to Assad for a massacre of 108 people last month, and many want a tougher response.

Moscow has used its UN Security Council veto and other tools to protect Assad, who has given Russia a firm Middle East foothold and is a client for Russian weapons.

Russia is under pressure to abandon its support or at least push Assad harder to adhere to a UN-backed ceasefire and Annan's peace plan.

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