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Syria's opposition SNC elects Hitto to head rival government


Syria's opposition group has chosen businessman Ghassan Hitto to head a rival Syrian government to administer rebel-held areas. Meanwhile, there has been condemnation of a Syrian air raid on the Lebanese border.

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) voted by a convincing majority early on Tuesday for Hitto, pictured right, to head a government for parts of Syria not held by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Hitto, a communications executive who has lived for decades in the United States, won 35 out of 49 votes after some 14 hours of closed-door consultations. More than 70 delegates had met in Istanbul on Monday to begin the task of electing the interim prime minister.

A devout Muslim, Damascus-born Hitto quit his job as a senior executive with a Texas technology communications firm in November to "join the ranks of the Syrian revolution."

Hitto, described as a consensus candidate to please Islamist and liberal factions, now faces the task of choosing a cabinet, which would then have to be approved by the SNC. Other potential candidates had included former Syrian Agriculture Minister Assad Mustapha and US-based Syrian Political and Strategic Institute chief Osama Kadi.

The meeting itself was postponed on several occasions because of differences within the coalition, an umbrella group of wide-ranging interests.

However, the possibility of the government being universally accepted by rebel groups has been called into question, with Islamic extremist militias such as the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra asserting dominance in key areas.

The establishment of a rival government is seen as a direct challenge to regime in Damascus. Washington is said to have had a cool response, saying that the emphasis should be on political transition.

Rebels fighting with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have said they would be willing to accept the authority of any transition government selected by the coalition.

"We would support this government and we would work under the umbrella of this government," Gen. Salim Idris told a press conference on Monday.

Assurances over weapons

Idris reiterated a call for Western countries to provide arms to rebels, adding that the FSA could guarantee they would not fall into the hands of extremists.

"We have the means and organizational capacity to ensure that these weapons reach good, safe hands," said Idris. The FSA leadership claims that it coordinates some 90 to 95 percent of rebel groups on the ground.

Western nations on Monday condemned a Syrian air attack on supposed rebels in a mountainous area along the porous border between Syria and Lebanon. The United States said rockets were fired into Lebanese territory, calling the move a "significant escalation."

The air raid was described as "a serious violation of Lebanon's sovereignty," by the French Foreign Ministry.

rc/lw (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)

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