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Syria opposition seeks British recognition, arms

(AFP) / 16 November 2012

DAMASCUS — Syrian opposition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib was meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Friday in London, seeking UK recognition and pressing for an end to an EU arms embargo.

As Khatib and his deputies met with Hague, fighting raged inside Syria, with troops bombarding southern districts of Damascus and its outskirts before dawn, and clashes ongoing in other strategic cities, a watchdog said.

Speaking before the meeting, Hague told BBC radio that the opposition had taken a “very big step forward” by uniting and said London 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 the arming of the opposition, although he stressed London was currently offering only non-lethal support.

Hague said Britain would like to be able to recognise the National Coalition, “but I do want to hear more about their plans, about who they are going to appoint to particular positions, about whether the Kurds will be included, and how much support they have inside Syria.

“After we’ve had that meeting today we may be able in the coming days to come to a judgement about that.”

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.”

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

Turkey followed suit on Thursday and urged other governments, particularly Muslim ones, to follow suit.

France raised on Thursday 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 new National Coalition on Sunday, was in London with his deputies, Riad Seif and Suhair al-Atassi. They are to travel to Paris for talks with President Francois Hollande on Saturday.

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

In Damascus, residents were kept awake through the night with the sound of explosions rumbling in the capital, activists told AFP.

The eastern outskirts of Damascus, a key bastion of rebel fighters, were particularly hard hit, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, with fierce shelling in Douma, Madamiyeh al-Sham, Irbin and the Eastern Ghouta region.

In the northern city of Aleppo, there were clashes near the Nayrab military airfield, which has been under regular rebel attacks for the past several months.

Battles and shelling carried on through the night and into the early morning in several districts of Aleppo, once Syria’s thriving commercial hub, the Observatory said.

In the central province of Homs, the army attempted to storm the rebel stronghold of Rastan from the north and fierce clashes broke out as rebels blocked the incursion.

On Thursday, 121 people — 50 civilians, 39 rebels and 32 loyalist troops — were killed across Syria.

More than 39,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad’s regime erupted 20 months ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog said on Thursday.




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