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Syria opposition chiefs seek support, arms in France

Syria's opposition chief Ahmad Jarba arrives in Paris to meet with the French Foreign Affairs committee on July 23, 2013
Syria's new opposition chief Ahmad Jarba arrives in Paris for a meeting with French national assembly Foreign Affairs committee on July 23, 2013, on the first of a two-day visit aimed at convincing France to boost its support for rebels battling Syria's P

Syria's opposition leader and the rebels' military chief said Tuesday they would ask France for various forms of assistance including military aid to back up the forces fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"This is one of the goals of our visit among other issues," new opposition chief Ahmad Jarba told reporters after meeting members of the French parliament's foreign affairs committee at the start of a two-day trip.

"Obviously we will ask France for total political support, diplomatic support, humanitarian emergency aid, and military and other aid," said Jarba.

Free Syrian Army chief General Selim Idriss added that the opposition was "working with our European and American friends to obtain technical, medical and humanitarian assistance and, we hope, also weapons and ammunition" as the rebels did "not have enough" weapons.

Jarba, accompanied by Idriss and other opposition leaders, was to meet President Francois Hollande on Wednesday.

It was Jarba's first visit to France since he was elected head of the main opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) on July 6.

Opposition chief Ahmad Jarba next to Elisabeth Guigou, head of the French Foreign Affairs committee, on July 23, 2013
Syria's new opposition chief, Ahmad Jarba, is pictured next to Elisabeth Guigou, head of the French national assembly Foreign Affairs committee, before his hearing on July 23, 2013.

He said Hollande's invitation was proof of France's interest in Syria's fate.

After France, Jarba was to head to New York for meetings at the United Nations.

Britain said the 15-nation UN Security Council, including Russia and China, would hold its first meeting with the SNC leadership on Friday.

The United Nations has been told of 13 alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria, a top UN official said ahead of talks between UN experts and the Syrian government.

The two experts arrived in Beirut on Tuesday and were expected to travel to Damascus Wednesday.

Robert Serry, the United Nations envoy on the Middle East peace process, told the Security Council that UN leader Ban Ki-moon remains "gravely concerned" about reports of the use of chemical arms in the 28-month-old conflict.

French officials said talks with the opposition were also being planned in London and Berlin.

A French diplomat said Idriss was expected to press rebel demands for Western arms, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

Smoke rises from a building after Syrian opposition forces attack a government checkpoint in Deir Ezzor on July 18, 2013
Smoke rises from a building after Syrian opposition forces attack a government checkpoint in Deir Ezzor on July 18, 2013.

The rebellion's Western backers have been sceptical of supplying weapons to the opposition, amid fears they could fall into the hands of radical Islamists.

"The priority for the Coalition is to be able to obtain arms for the Free Army, not only because Bashar al-Assad's regime is receiving enormous amounts of weapons from Russia and Iran and has retaken the initiative on several fronts, but also because there is a need to strengthen the Free Army in the face of jihadist groups," said Ziad Majed, a professor at the American University of Paris.

But the diplomatic source said Paris would insist on the "political perspective" of resolving Syria's civil war.

"First of all they are coming to meet the president to explain who they are, what is their strategy, what they want to do with the Coalition, what they want to do with Syria but also with the opposition," the source said.

Jarba, who is part of a faction of veteran secular dissidents and is seen as close to Saudi Arabia, has criticised some rebels' links with Islamist groups.

The diplomatic source said the delegation would be looking to show that "they represent an alternative that respects civil and democratic rights".

Syrians inspect the site where a barrel bomb dropped by an air force helicopter exploded in Saraqeb on July 20, 2013
Syrians inspect the site where a barrel bomb dropped by an air force helicopter exploded in Saraqeb on July 20, 2013.

The meetings come amid a deadlock in efforts to convene a follow-up to last year's Geneva conference on establishing a transitional government.

The military battle is also locked in stalemate, with the UN saying up to 100,000 people have been killed since protests against Assad started in March 2011.

Across Syria, warplanes and helicopter gunships carried out intense air raids on Tuesday as fighting raged in and around the capital between regime and rebel forces, a watchdog said.

The raids killed five people in the town of Tabqa in the northern province of Raqa, and six others, including two women and three children, in Sermin in the northwestern province of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Syrian Kurds meanwhile made rapid advances in the north on Tuesday, expelling jihadists from a string of villages, as mistrust between Kurds and Arabs grows, a watchdog and activists said.

Fighting hit a series of ethnically mixed villages in the northern province of Raqa on the border with Turkey, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

A rebel fighter aims his weapon to Syrian government forces' positions in the Izaa district of Aleppo, on July 14, 2013
A rebel fighter aims his weapon to Syrian government forces' positions in the Izaa district of Aleppo, on July 14, 2013.

And the Lebanese government imposed new entry controls on Syrians on Tuesday in a bid to reduce friction between the host population and the 600,000 who have already crossed.

Ministers said they had no intention of closing the border to refugees fleeing the conflict in their homeland.

But they said that in future they would recognise as refugees only those fleeing parts of Syria that have been wracked by violence.

Fresh from visiting a huge refugee camp, US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday huddled with UN and aid organisation leaders to discuss ways to help millions caught in the crossfire in Syria.

With no end in sight to the conflict, 1.8 million Syrians are now refugees in neighbouring countries.

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