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Ghassan Hitto voted premier of Syria's rebel territory

Syrian national opposition coalition members attend  a meeting on March 18,  2013 in Istanbul
Syrian national opposition coalition members attend a meeting on March 18, 2013 in Istanbul. Syria's main opposition National Council has elected Ghassan Hitto, a communications executive with Islamist leanings who has lived in the United States, as premi

Syria's main opposition National Council has elected Ghassan Hitto, a communications executive with Islamist leanings who has lived in the United States, as premier for swathes of Syrian rebel-held territory mired in chaos and poverty.

"Ghassan Hitto has won," Coalition member Hisham Marwa told reporters in Istanbul, Turkey late Monday, adding that the winning candidate took 35 out of 49 votes, correcting an initial count of 48.

The vote came after some 14 hours of closed-door consultations among 70-odd Coalition members, with some members describing Hitto as a consensus candidate pleasing both the opposition's Islamist and liberal factions.

But other Coalition members withdrew from the consultations before the vote could take place, reflecting divisions within Syria's opposition.

When the voting finally happened, the remaining Coalition members placed their ballots in a transparent box located at the front of a conference hall in an Istanbul hotel, where the much-awaited meeting took place.

"This is a transparent, democratic vote," said Coalition chief Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib.

Hitto arrived in the conference hall minutes after the count, and was met with a round of applause as he shook hands with Coalition members.

"We say to you (the Syrian people) that we are with you, and that, God willing, we are victorious" over President Bashar al-Assad's regime, Hitto told reporters, as he praised the "great" Syrian people.

A Syrian refugee woman walks with  children along a road in the Bab al-Hawa camp on the Turkish border March 18, 2013.
A Syrian refugee woman walks with two children along a road in the Bab al-Hawa camp on the Turkish border in the Syrian province of Idlib, on March 18, 2013.

"We will announce this government's programme soon," added the strife-torn country's first rebel premier, voted in more than two years after the outbreak of an anti-Assad revolt.

Coalition members say the prime minister's first task will be to form an interim government, which he should put to vote to the group's general assembly.

Hitto plans to be based inside rebel-held Syrian territory, from where he and his future government will help administer swathes of territory that have slipped out of regime control but into poverty and insecurity.

Hitto's resume touts 25 years of experience with high-tech and telecommunications companies, including 16 years in executive management roles.

Last November he abruptly quit his job "to join the ranks of the Syrian revolution."

Up until recently, Hitto headed the National Coalition's humanitarian assistance arm -- the Turkey-based Assistance Coordination Unit, where he did "a stellar job", according to Coalition spokesman Khaled al-Saleh.

Syria's opposition coalition meeting unfolds on March 18, 2013 in Istanbul
Syria's opposition coalition meeting takes place on March 18, 2013, in Istanbul.

Supporters have praised his knack for building diplomatic ties that have been key to secure much-needed financial support for Syrians displaced by the conflict.

Reflecting the opposition's divisions, the group only went forward with the vote when the candidacies of two other key contenders -- economist Osama al-Kadi and Salem al-Moslet -- were dropped.

Still, the vote could change the course of Syria's civil war, and opponents in Istanbul hoped it would attract much-needed weapons and humanitarian aid from the international community.

Hours before the vote, Syria's conflict took a new turn with the loyalist air force being accused of bombing the border area between Syria and Lebanon.

Warplanes reportedly targeted the town of Arsal in east Lebanon, where many residents back the Syrian rebels' uprising.

A high-ranking Lebanese army official told AFP four missiles had been fired, apparently aiming for Syrian rebels positions inside Lebanon.

Top US official Victoria Nuland confirmed the strikes, denouncing them as "unacceptable".

"This constitutes a significant escalation in the violations of Lebanese sovereignty that the Syrian regime has been guilty of. These kinds of violations of sovereignty are absolutely unacceptable," she said.

The Syrian conflict has killed some 70,000 people and forced millions to flee from their homes, according to the United Nations.

As violence pitting rebels against the army raged across Syria, the selection of a rebel premier further reduced chances of talks with the Assad regime, which Coalition leader Khatib had proposed in January.

Pro-Assad daily Al-Watan was quick to slam the Coalition's bid to form a government, branding it "delirious and confused".

Free Syrian Army chief Selim Idriss has said the rebels will support and "work under the umbrella of this government", reducing concerns that the insurgents could from the outset be opposed to an interim civilian authority.

Idriss also repeated calls to the West to arm the insurgents, adding he could guarantee that "these weapons will not fall into the wrong hands".

European Union leaders are due to meet this week to discuss easing an EU arms embargo, amid statements from Paris and London that it is time to start arming the Syrian opposition.

The United States said Monday it would not block European moves to arm Syrian rebels battling Assad.

"President (Barack) Obama has made it clear that the United States does not stand in the way of other countries that have made a decision to provide arms, whether it's France or Britain or others," US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters.

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