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Syria slams ‘hostile’ France as fighting rages
Syrian Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs, Ali Haidar (C), is seen before the "national dialogue" meeting between representatives of the Syrian government and the new Syrian opposition in Tehran, on November 18, 2012. (AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE)
Syrian Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs, Ali Haidar (C), is seen before the "national dialogue" meeting between representatives of the Syrian government and the new Syrian opposition in Tehran, on November 18, 2012. (AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE)
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DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Syria Sunday slammed as “hostile” a French decision to host an ambassador from the opposition National Coalition, as regime forces bombarded southern districts of the capital and rebels claimed to capture a key military base in the country’s north.

France Saturday invited the group to send an envoy to Paris, after President Francois Hollande met National Coalition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.

France, the first Western state to recognize the opposition National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, will also ask the European Union to lift an arms embargo for the rebels Monday.

“France is acting like a hostile nation,” National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar told AFP on a visit to key ally Tehran.

“It’s as if it wants to go back to the time of the occupation,” he added, speaking of the French mandate in Syria after World War I.

Haidar was speaking as Tehran prepared to host talks between Syrian officials and opposition groups tolerated by President Bashar Assad’s regime.

No National Coalition representatives were invited to the Iran talks.

“Invitations were extended to all those who accept dialogue, not to those who refuse to talk as a matter of principle,” Haidar said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi warned against sending weapons to the rebels, saying this would threaten regional stability and increase the “risk of terrorism.”

Russia reiterated its alignment with Iran on the issue of providing the coalition with weapons.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned, in a message to the Tehran meeting, against the risk of weapons ending up in the hands of “Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups” seeking to seize Syria, Iranian official media reported.

The opposition coalition, formed in Doha on Nov. 11, is committed to building a transitional government composed of representatives of all ethnic and religious groups in conflict-ridden Syria.

Turkey and the Gulf Arab states have also officially recognized it, and Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday London was considering following suit.

But the group refuses to engage with the Damascus regime before Assad’s departure.

Despite the offer to host an envoy, Paris remained cautious on the issue of supplying weapons to Syrian rebels amid fears of the conflict spreading.

The post of National Coalition envoy to France is to be filled by academic Monzer Makhous, although it was unclear if this would happen before a planned provisional government is formed.

Coalition chief Khatib in Paris Saturday repeated the group’s promise to build a government of technocrats rather than politicians. “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,” he told reporters.

But he appeared to have made little progress on his call for the West to arm the insurgency.

“The [rebel] Syrians need military means but the international community also has to exercise control,” Hollande said.

He acknowledged that France could not act without agreement from its European Union partners – the EU has a strict embargo on arms deliveries to Syria.

On the ground, Israeli artillery responded early Sunday after gunfire from Syria hit an army vehicle but caused no casualties, Israel’s military said, in the latest spillover of violence from the bloody civil war raging across the cease-fire line.

“Shots were fired at IDF [Israeli army] soldiers ... in the central Golan Heights,” an army spokeswoman told AFP, adding that the Syrian fire hit “a vehicle.”

“Soldiers responded with artillery fire toward the source of the shooting ... a direct hit was identified,” she said of the latest in several exchanges.

Israeli troops have fired into Syria twice before, responding to what appeared to be stray mortar shells exploding in Israeli-held territory.

Israel has complained repeatedly to the United Nations over the incidents.

In west Damascus, mortar rounds hit the mainly Alawite regime heartland of Mezzeh, in an attack state television blamed on “terrorist groups.”

Government artillery also bombarded the southern district of Al-Hajar al-Aswad, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based watchdog, which relies on a network of activists and medics in civilian and military hospitals to compile its tolls, said one civilian was killed and several wounded.

Aleppo and its environs in the north also saw heavy combat, the Observatory said, reporting fierce clashes at the government’s Base 46 in the province, which has been besieged for weeks.

Syrian rebels said they took control of part of the strategic army base and that they had captured at least 25 regime soldiers during clashes with the military there. Their claims could not be independently verified.

“Several insurgent groups have seized control of a large part of Base 46,” the Observatory said.

During their assault on the sprawling base, which is situated atop a hill near the town of Atarib, the rebel fighters seized heavy weapons from the military, it added.

Amateur rebel video distributed by the Observatory showed the prisoners being held in a dark room, nearly all of them wearing civilian clothing.

Artillery fire also hit the provinces of Deraa in the south and Deir al-Zor in the east, where rebels Saturday said they had seized the key regime airport of Hamdan, a base for helicopter gunships.

The Observatory said at least two rebels were killed in a government ambush in the central province of Hama.

At least 50 people were killed across Syria Sunday, according to an updated toll compiled by the Observatory. Among them were 26 civilians, 12 soldiers and 12 rebel fighters.

Sunday’s fighting came a day after at least 142 people were killed nationwide, according to the Observatory, which has put the death toll in more than 20 months of conflict at upward of 39,000.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 19, 2012, on page 1.
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