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Syria opposition seeks support

Newly named Syrian opposition leader launches his mission to topple Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Free Syrian Army opposition fighters battle government security forces during the siege of the Shaar district police station in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Picture: AFP.

DOHA/CAIRO - Syria's newly named opposition leader, a soft-spoken cleric backed by Washington and the Gulf Arab states, launched his quest on Monday for international recognition as a government-in-waiting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

In a sign of the danger that the civil war could spread across Syria's borders, Israeli forces said they fired "direct hits" on Syrian artillery in response to a mortar strike into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Western and Arab enemies of Assad hope the creation of a new Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces can finally unify a fractious and ineffective opposition.

Mouaz Alkhatib, a former imam of a Damascus mosque, flew to Cairo to seek the Arab League's blessing for the new assembly, the day after he was unanimously elected to lead it. He made a concerted effort to address the sectarian and ethnic acrimony underlying 20 months of civil war that has killed 38,000 people.

"We demand freedom for every Sunni, Alawi, Ismaili, Christian, Druze, Assyrian ... and rights for all parts of the harmonious Syrian people," he said, calling on Syrian soldiers to desert and all sects to unite.

His assembly was recognised by the six Sunni Muslim-ruled kingdoms of the Gulf Cooperation Council as "the legitimate representative of the Syrian people". Washington said it would back it "as it charts a course toward the end of Assad's bloody rule and the start of the peaceful, just, democratic future".

The Arab League welcomed the formation of the new body, called on other opposition groups to join it and described it as "a legitimate representative and a primary negotiator", but fell short of calling it the new authority in Syria.

Shooting across the line that divides Syria from the Israeli-occupied Golan was just the latest spill over of violence that has alarmed neighbours including Turkey and Lebanon.

Israeli military sources said Israel hit Syrian army mobile artillery on Monday, the second straight day it fired back in retaliation for what it said were stray mortars hitting Golan.

"We will not allow our borders to be breached or our citizens to be fired at," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967. Although the two countries have not fought over the territory since 1973, they are still officially at war.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called on Israel and Syria to halt firing.

In the north, where fighting has sent thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing into Turkey, a Reuters correspondent saw Syrian jets and helicopters bomb Ras al-Ain, a border town taken by rebels last week. Bombs landed just metres from the frontier, sending up plumes of black smoke.

Opposition groups said 12-16 people died in the air strikes. Turkey said it did not appear that the planes had entered its air space. It is discussing with NATO allies deploying Patriot air defence missiles on the border.

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