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EU views Syria opposition 'legitimate' representative

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EU views Syria opposition 'legitimate' representative

Bashar al-Assad - Photo EC

(BRUSSELS) - European Union foreign ministers dealt a new blow to President Bashar al-Assad's regime Monday, saying they viewed Syria's just-formed National Coalition "legitimate representatives" of Syria's people.

A statement issued by the bloc's 27 ministers after a day of talks welcomed the November 11 formation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

"The EU considers them legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people. This agreement represents a major step towards the necessary unity of the Syrian opposition," it said.

"The EU looks forward to this new coalition continuing to work for full inclusiveness, subscribing to the principles of human rights and democracy and engaging with all opposition groups and sections of Syrian society.

"The EU stands ready to support this new Coalition in these endeavours and is relations with the international community," it said.

France, which last week became the first Western country to recognise the Coalition as sole representative of the Syrian people, had urged fellow EU nations to follow in its footsteps.

Monday's statement was a step short of the French stance.

Italy however joined France on Monday in full recognition of the group, with Britain expected to clarify its position in a parliamentary debate on Tuesday.

The National Coalition was formed in Qatar after 20 months of conflict that activists say has killed more than 39,000 people.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said at the close of the meeting that all his EU counterparts had expressed "much sympathy vis-a-vis the coalition".

"I think we will invite the Coalition leaders to our next meeting (in December) to allow them to talk to all of the foreign ministers, which will be highly symbolic," Fabius said.

But as clashes raged across Syria, the main Islamist groups in the northern city of Aleppo, a key frontline in the civil war, said they rejected the National Coalition.

"We, the fighting squads of Aleppo city and province, unanimously reject the conspiratorial project called the National Coalition and announce our consensus to establish an Islamic state" in Syria, a spokesman said in an Internet video posted Monday.

"We reject any external coalitions or councils imposed on us at home from any party whatsoever," said the unidentified speaker, who sat at the head of a long conference table with at least 30 other men and a black Islamist flag behind him.

But Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, the head of the main rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) in embattled Aleppo, told AFP that the statement did not represent the opinion of all rebel groups in the province.

"These groups represent a number of military factions on the ground and reflect their position, but not all military forces in Aleppo agree with this," the defected former army colonel told AFP by phone.

"The military council has announced its support for the National Coalition and is collaborating with them," Okaidi added.

The National Coalition aims to present a united front to the international community and is lobbying for weapons to help topple the Assad regime.

France's Fabius last week issued a more controversial call to lift an EU embargo on delivering arms to Syria in order to arm the rebels.

But EU diplomats pointed out that lifting the bloc's current embargo, agreed last year, would require unanimity, while delivering arms to one side would be a highly complex matter.

Rejecting the idea out of hand, Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said his country "does not arm people who are fighting."

PRESS RELEASE - 3199th Council meeting - FOREIGN AFFAIRS / DEFENCE - Brussels, 19 November 2012 (provisional version)

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