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EU edges closer to Syrian opposition

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(BRUSSELS) - The European Union edged closer Monday to the newly-formed Syrian opposition, welcoming its leader and deeming his group to be "legitimate representatives" of the Syrian people.

EU foreign ministers said they had welcomed the opportunity to meet Ahmed Moaz Al-Khatib for an exchange of views as the bloody conflict in Syria shows no sign of ending and with the death toll above 42,000.

Significantly, however, ministers said in a statement that the "EU accepts as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people" the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces which Al-Khatib leads.

Previously, the EU had recognised the coalition as "legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people," falling short of recognising it outright as a potential successor to President Bashar al-Assad.

Asked about the importance of the change in wording, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the statement spoke for itself, adding that ministers had found it "incredibly useful" to have met Al-Khatib.

While Britain and France have extended full recognition to the coalition, several EU member states have reservations about the group in terms of how representative it is and its democratic commitment.

The statement expressed welcome for the coalition's efforts to "become more operational and inclusive," and encouraged it to continue to work on these goals.

The coalition should "remain committed to the respect of the principles of human rights, inclusivity, democracy and engaging with all opposition groups and all sections of Syrian civil society," the statement said.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said earlier Monday as he went into the meeting with his EU colleagues that welcoming Al-Khatib "is a clear signal of how the status of the Syrian coalition is being reviewed.

"It is a coalition which represents the legitimate interests of the Syrian people. We want that to be recognised as such by the European Union," Westerwelle added.

Earlier British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was happy that EU ministers would meet Al-Khatib and hoped that other member states would follow Paris and London in giving the group full recognition.

Such a step could allow Western powers to arm rebel forces seeking to oust Assad, but that is a sensitive issue given reservations about the possible unintended consequences of such a step.

The EU recently rolled over its arms embargo on all Syrian parties for another three months to March 1.

Ashton met Al-Khatib separately earlier Monday, saying she had stressed that the new coalition had to ensure that it included all opinion in Syria and that it was committed to democratic standards.

Al-Khatib has visited London and Paris but his meeting Monday with the 27 EU foreign ministers "has a larger symbolic importance," one diplomat said.

Foreign ministers also said that the "EU is appalled by the increasingly deteriorating situation in Syria, primarily due to the unprecedented use of force by the regime."

At the same time, they warned that any use or transfer of chemical weapons was a matter of serious concern, adding that if they were to be used, "those responsible will be held accountable."

After the talks, the European Commission announced that it would provide another 30 million euros in humanitarian aid to help people affected by the Syrian civil war, bringing its total contribution to some 126 million euros.

PRESS RELEASE - 3209th Council meeting - FOREIGN AFFAIRS - Brussels, 10 December 2012 (provisional version)

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