ALEPPO  - President Bashar al-Assad named a new prime minister on Thursday to replace Syria’s most senior government defector as his forces pushed rebels back from a strategic district in Aleppo.

Assad appointed Wael al-Halki, from the southern province of Deraa where the Syrian uprising erupted 17 months ago, to head the government after Riyad Hijab fled on Monday after spending only two months in the job.

Rebels fighting in the Aleppo district of Salaheddine, a southern gateway to the city, said they had been forced to fall back from frontline positions on Thursday by a fierce bombardment which had reduced buildings to rubble.

“There have been some withdrawals of Free Syrian Army fighters from Salaheddine,” rebel commander Abu Ali said. Others said the main frontlines in the area, which had been held by rebels for more than a week, were now deserted.

The streets were covered in glass and rubble. Cars on the street had been smashed by falling debris, and the stench of uncollected rubbish permeated the area.

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called for “serious and inclusive” talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups. Assad has repeatedly said he is ready for dialogue, but has vowed to crush the armed rebels he says are terrorists.

Though sympathetic to the rebels, Western powers, Turkey and Arab states have not intervened militarily. Russia and China have blocked UN action against Assad.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition watchdog, said more than 78 people had been killed across Syria on Thursday. It put Wednesday’s death toll at 170, including 33 civilians in Aleppo. The violence in Syria has forced tens of thousands of people to flee into neighbouring countries, and about 2,400 refugees, including two generals, arrived in Turkey on Tuesday night.

Near the Syrian border town of al-Dana, a crowd of refugees from Aleppo piled through a frontier fence as Turkish soldiers tried to keep order.