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Syrian rebel official backs interim government

Khalid Saleh spokesman for oppositiSyrian National Coalitispeaks reporters Istanbul Turkey Monday March 18 2013. The coalitibegan push Monday form an

Khalid Saleh, the spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, speaks to reporters in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, March 18, 2013. The coalition began a push Monday to form an interim government to administer rebel-held parts of Syria. (AP Photo/Ben Hubbard)

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Updated: March 18, 2013 12:06PM

ISTANBUL (AP) — A top military official with the most official grouping of Syrian rebels threw his weight on Monday behind the formation of an interim government to administer rebel-held areas as government forces shelled targets along the country’s eastern border with Lebanon.

As opponents to Syrian President’s Bashar Assad’s government met in Istanbul to set up an interim government of their own, Assad’s fighter jets struck targets near the town of Arsal, Lebanon, according to Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency. The two countries share a porous border and it was unclear if the shelling occurred inside Lebanon.

The fighting there comes just days after Damascus warned Beirut to stop militants from cross the border to fight alongside the rebels. Lebanon has been on edge since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011 and gunmen on opposing sides of Syrian civil war have frequently clashed in Lebanon, raising concern that fighting could spread.

In Damascus, at least three mortar shells struck in central Damascus, including one that fell inside Tishreen park, according to the pro-government’s Al-Ikhbariya TV. The park is close to Tishreen Palace in the capital’s northwestern Muhajireen district, one of three palaces that Assad uses in the city.

Assad often uses Tishreen Palace to receive dignitaries and as a guest house for foreign officials during their visits to Syria. A mortar shell struck near the southern wall of the palace last month.

The mortar shelling came amid fierce fighting on the edges of Damascus and in suburbs to the east and south.

Syria’s conflict began with political protest in mid-March, 2011, and has since become a civil war, with hundreds of rebel groups fighting Assad’s forces. The U.N. says more than 70,000 people have been killed and millions have been pushed from their homes by the violence.

In Istanbul, Gen. Salim Idris, head of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, told reporters that the rebel fighters with the Free Syrian Army will work under the umbrella of an interim government and protect its members.

“We recognize the coalition as our political umbrella and we hope this government can be formed unanimously and that this government will exercise its powers in all of Syria,” he said. “We consider it the only legal government in the country.”

Idris’ comments sought to boost efforts by the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition to choose a prime minister who will form an interim government. The coalition has failed to take such a step twice before, but members say there now appears to be more agreement that such a step is necessary.

The coalition’s 73 members meeting in Istanbul are expected to elect an interim prime minister from 12 candidates. The vote is expected by Tuesday.

Idris’ comments also sought to portray his group, the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Free Syrian Army, as the most widespread, powerful and organized rebel formation in Syria. It remains unclear, however, how many of the hundreds of rebel brigades fighting Assad’s forces follow Idris’ commands or receive support from his group.

Some of the most effective rebel groups are Islamic extremists who have developed their own support networks. One of them, Jabhat al-Nusra, has been designated a terrorist group by the United States and is said to be linked to al-Qaida.

Idris said his group has no relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra.

He renewed his call for world powers to arm rebel fighters, saying his group would insure that the weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands — a prime concern of the U.S. and other powers, especially given Syria’s southern frontier with Israel.

“We have the power and the organizational capacity to control the movement of these weapons and keep them in safe, trusted hands,” he said.

Idris also suggested other types of possible military aid, saying his group would welcome Lebanese or international forces along Syria’s border with Lebanon. He also called for rebel units to be trained to seize Syria’s chemical weapons.

“The chemical weapons in Syria are not secured,” he said, warning that they could be used against rebels or given to “rogue groups, like the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.”

“We ask the international community to help us train special forces that can secure these weapons and keep them from falling into the hands of extremists,” he said.


Associated Press Writer Barbara Surk and Karin Laub in Beirut, Lebanon, contributed to this report.

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