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France recognises new Syria opposition

France becomes first European power to recognise Syria’s new opposition.

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.

CAIRO/PARIS - France became the first European power to recognise Syria's new opposition coalition as the sole representative of its people and said on Tuesday it would look into arming rebels against President Bashar al-Assad once they form a government.

Twenty months into their bloody uprising against Assad, fragmented Syrian opposition groups struck a deal in Qatar on Sunday to form a broad coalition and their leader immediately appealed for European backing.

"I announce today that France recognises the Syrian National Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and as future government of a democratic Syria making it possible to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad's regime," French President Francois Hollande said, breaking ranks with European allies. Six Gulf Arab states took a similar step on Monday.

The question of arming the rebels would be looked at as soon as the rebel coalition formed a transitional government, Hollande told a news conference in Paris.

Arab League and EU foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on Tuesday welcomed the formation of the coalition as an important step forward, although their communiqué showed they had not reached a unanimous decision to recognise it as Syria's sole authority.

The French announcement came just hours after Syria's newly installed opposition leader urged European states to back the opposition so it could buy weapons.

Paris, one of Assad's harshest critics, had previously ruled out arming rebel forces, concerned that weapons could get into the hands of radical Islamists.

Speaking to Reuters as Arab and European ministers met to discuss Syria at the Arab League in Cairo, Mouaz Alkhatib, the Damascus preacher elected unopposed on Sunday to lead the new group, had asked for diplomatic backing.

"I request European states to grant political recognition to the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and to give it financial support," he said.

"When we get political recognition, this will allow the coalition to act as a government and hence acquire weapons and this will solve our problems," added Alkhatib, who has been described by supporters as a moderate noted for his embrace of Syria's religious and ethnic minorities.

So far, concerted action on Syria has been thwarted by divisions within the opposition, as well as by big power rivalries and a regional divide between Sunni Muslim foes of Assad and his Shi'ite allies in Iran and Lebanon.

Russia and China, which have lent Assad diplomatic support since the uprising erupted in March last year, have shown no sign of warming towards his Western- and Arab-backed opponents.