Middle East

Syrian rebel coalition names envoy to Paris

French President Francois Hollande (L) shakes hands with Syrian opposition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib after a press conference following a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on November 17, 2012. AFP PHOTO/KENZO TRIBOUILLARD

PARIS: France boosted its support for Syria's new opposition coalition Saturday with a promise to let it appoint an envoy to Paris, but remained cautious about supplying weapons to rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

France has been one of Assad's harshest critics and this week became the first Western country to recognise the opposition coalition -- formed last weekend in Doha -- as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

President Francois Hollande met the coalition's leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib in Paris on Saturday and afterwards told reporters that he planned to let the group appoint an ambassador to the French capital.

The post is to be filled by Monzer Makhous, an academic, although it was unclear if this would happen before the transitional government was formed.

Khatib for his part repeated his coalition's promise to build a transitional government composed of technocrats rather than politicians, and said it would include representatives of all Syria's ethnic and religious groups.

"There is no problem. The coalition exists and we will launch a call for candidates to form a government of technocrats that will work until the regime falls," Khatib told reporters.

But he appeared to have made little progress on his call for the West to arm the revolt which has led to an estimated 39,000 deaths since it began 20 months ago.

"The (rebel) Syrians need military means but the international community also has to exercise control," Hollande said, while acknowledging that France cannot act without agreement from its partners in the European Union, which has a strict embargo on arms deliveries to Syria.

EU foreign ministers were set to discuss the embargo at talks in Brussels on Monday.

France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday he would raise the idea of modifying the embargo to exclude defensive weapons for the rebels to help them protect areas they hold from bombardment by forces loyal to Assad.

"The protection of liberated zones can only be done in the framework of the international community," Hollande said after meeting Khatib. "Once an alternative government has been formed, it can itself legitimately call for protection and support."

Hollande noted that Khatib, a Sunni imam, had assured him that the future government would include Christians and Alawites, the minority group to which Assad belongs.

France, Turkey and the Gulf states have so far granted official recognition to the new Syrian grouping, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who met Khatib in London on Friday, said Britain was considering following suit.

Fighting continued in Syria on Saturday.

At least 18 people were killed across the country on Saturday, according to a preliminary count compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syria's air force dropped deadly explosive-filled barrels on several rebel-held areas across the country, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists, doctors and lawyers for its information.

Most of the army's air strikes targeted Idlib province in the northwest, Aleppo in the north and Damascus province. All three provinces are home to highly organised rebel groups.

After battles with the army that have lasted several weeks, rebels seized control of Hamdan airport in the eastern town of Albu Kamal near the border with Iraq, said the Observatory.

In Damascus, four civilians were killed when the Palestinian Yarmuk camp was shelled, it said.

In Aleppo, two rebels were killed in fighting, and regime forces launched several air strikes on towns near the embattled city, including Hreitan and Anadan, said the Observatory.

A Turkish journalist held by Syrian government troops since August was freed Saturday and handed to a group of Turkish opposition lawmakers following their meeting with President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish media reported.





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