DAMASCUS - Syria's embattled President Bashar Assad swore in his new government on Sunday, saying security and reconstruction would be top priorities and urging ministers to tackle corruption. Meanwhile, some 44 peacekeepers were still being held captive by Syrian rebels from the al-Qaeda linked group Al Nusra Front.
The new government, appointed earlier this week after Assad's June re-election, takes office as the death toll in the country's conflict since March 2011 soars past 191,000.
The crippling violence has decimated the country's economy and displaced approximately half its population, including three million Syrians who have taken refugee abroad.
The news came amid tensions with Israel and the UN, after Israel downed a drone believed to be Syria's and 44 UN peacekeepers were held captive by rebels fighting Assad's forces over the Golan region. One strange image to emerge from the fighting was of a UN vehicle with donning the flag of the Nusra Front.
The Nusra Front held over 80 peacekeepers, but 40 managed to flee into Israel late Saturday night.
Assad urged the new government to "provide a new vision," state news agency SANA reported, and to avoid the "negatives of the previous stage."
He said the government's success would depend on "earning the trust of citizens through transparency and credibility," SANA said.
He acknowledged that security remained the primary concern for the country, which has been torn apart by the violence that erupted after government crackdowns on anti-Assad protesters.
"This issue is being addressed by the Defense Ministry and the army... At the same time, it is important to continue with national reconciliation."
The new government includes 11 new ministers, with most of the changes involving finance and the economy. Assad selected the new cabinet after being elected in the country's first multi-candidate presidential vote earlier this year.
The vote was dismissed as a "farce" by much of the international community and the opposition and was held only in government-controlled territory.
Assad said Sunday that the country's key economic challenge was reconstruction in areas "where security has been restored" but also urged ministers to combat price-fixing and profiteering as well as corruption.
The government "must be decisive in the fight against corruption and hold the corrupt accountable," SANA quoted him as saying.
Syria's conflict has plunged half the population into poverty, according to researchers, with some 20 percent living in "abject poverty."
Unemployment stood at around 54 percent at the end of 2013, though it was as high as 65 percent in some places.
Keeping the peacekeepers
The al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front says it reached a deal to secure the release of a group of UN peacekeepers held captive in the Syira side of the Golan Heights, Al Jazeera reported Sunday.
The UN peacekeeping force was captured Thursday during fighting between rebels - some of which belong to the al-Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front - and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad over control of the border crossing with Israel and the Golan region; 40 peacekeepers fled into Israel last night, while an additional 44 remain in captivity.
According to the report, the group conditioned the release of the remaining 44 peacekeeping forces from Fiji on the transferring of humanitarian aid to the Ruta area of the embattled Syrian capital Damascus.
The head of the Fijian army said on Sunday negotiations for the release of 44 soldiers abducted by an al Qaeda-linked group on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights were being pursued as the United Nations said it had no word on the troops whereabouts.
"At this time, no additional information on their status or location has been established. The United Nations continues to actively seek their immediate and unconditional release," the UN press office said in a statement.
Fijian Army Commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga told a media conference in Fiji that they "are continuing negotiations at all levels."
He said they had been assured that the men were being treated well and had come to no harm, he said.
"However, we are still very concerned that we cannot confirm at this stage their exact location, whether they are still in Syria or whether they have been moved to neighbouring countries," Tikoitoga said.
The Fijian and Philippine troops are serving with UNDOF in the Golan.
Under the cover of darkness, 40 Filipino peacekeepers made a daring escape after being surrounded and coming under fire by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights, the Philippine military chief said Sunday, while 44 Fijian troops remained in the hands of the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.
The Associated Press contributed to this report