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British decision 'soon' on recognising Syria opposition

(L-R) Vice President Suheir Atassi, Riad Seif, President Sheikh Ahmed Mu'az Al-Khatb, and Foreign Secretary William Hague look on during a meeting on the continuing conflict in Syria, at the Foreign and Commonwealth office in Whitehall central London on November 16, 2012. AFP PHOTO/POOL/John Stillwell

DAMASCUS: Syrian opposition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib in London on Friday met British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said he would decide within days whether to officially recognise the newly united coalition.

As Khatib and his deputies met Hague, violence raged inside Syria, with air strikes targeting the eastern outskirts of Damascus and more than 30 people wounded in shelling on a protest in second city Aleppo, a watchdog said.

Traditional protests after Friday prayers also saw demonstrators chant slogans of solidarity with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where militants fired rockets at Israel which responded with deadly air strikes.

Speaking to reporters after their meeting, Hague said he had pressed Khatib, who is on his first visit to a Western capital since a united Syrian opposition was formed last weekend, on the need to be inclusive and to respect human rights.

Hague earlier said he needed to learn more about the National Coalition's planned appointments and levels of support on the ground.

"I'm encouraged by what I've heard and seen from the leaders of the coalition," Hague said, adding that he would decide "in the coming days" whether to recognise it as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

He also confirmed that Britain was re-examining the EU embargo that prevents arming the opposition, although he stressed London was currently offering only non-lethal support.

As for assistance, he said "we will discuss... giving them more non-lethal assistance, not arms but other practical assistance that we can send that helps save lives," he said.

"Of course we will discuss with our European partners the future of the arms embargo. We've made no decision to change that so far."

Hague is set to make a statement to parliament on the issue next week.

France on Tuesday became the first Western country to formally recognise the National Coalition, joining Turkey and the six Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

France on Thursday raised the prospect of providing Syria's rebels with defensive weapons. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris would discuss its proposal to ease the EU arms embargo that currently covers both sides.

"For the moment, there is an embargo, so there are no arms being delivered from the European side," he said. "The issue... will no doubt be raised for defensive arms. This is something that we can only do in coordination with the Europeans."

Khatib, who was elected head of the National Coalition on Sunday, was in London with his deputies, Riad Seif and Suhair al-Atassi. They will meet President Francois Hollande in Paris on Saturday.

EU member states Germany, Spain, Italy and Poland have also welcomed the formation of the National Coalition, but have stopped short of recognising it as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

On the ground, troops pounded rebel bastions along the eastern outskirts of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, while rebels in the southern Tadamun district launched mortar rounds at nearby pro-regime streets.

In the Eastern Ghuta region outside the capital, rebel forces downed a military helicopter as clashes raged, the Britain-based watchdog said.

In the northern city of Aleppo, 30 people including two journalists working for the BBC and Al-Arabiya satellite channel were wounded in shelling on the central district of Bustan al-Qasr at a demonstration.

Protesters emerged in their thousands across the country after Friday prayers in solidarity with the new opposition coalition and the Palestinians of Gaza.

"We sacrifice our blood and souls for you, O Gaza," demonstrators cried out in the central city of Hama, as they waved the three-starred flag of the Syrian revolution.

The authenticity of the video posted to YouTube could not be immediately verified.

"(President Bashar al-) Assad and Israel are two sides of the same coin," Hama activist Abu Ghazi told AFP via the Internet.

The Observatory, which compiles its tolls from a countrywide network of activists and medics in civilian and military hospitals, reported at least 89 people killed in violence nationwide on Friday, among them 38 civilians.

More than 39,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad's regime erupted 20 months ago, the Observatory says.

 

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