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Syria rebels to address Arab summit but await seat

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Syrian opposition leaders are to address an annual summit of the Arab League for the first time in Qatar on Tuesday, but the bloc's members remain divided over whether to give them Damascus's vacant seat.

The Qatari hosts are vocal champions of the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime and said leaders of the armed opposition would definitely be joining Arab heads of state in Doha.

But they did not specify whether the Syrian National Coalition would be given Syria's seat which has been vacant since its suspension from the 22-member bloc in November 2011.

"Arab foreign ministers will decide on the issue of the seat" during a preparatory meeting in Doha on Sunday, an Arab League official told AFP.

The Arab League called on the National Coalition on March 6 to form an executive body to take up Syria's seat and take part in the summit.

But Lebanon distanced itself from the decision, while Algeria and Iraq expressed reservations.

In all, nine of the bloc's other 21 members retain diplomatic missions in Damascus -- Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Sudan and Yemen -- despite its decision last November to recognise the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

The opposition alliance has begun steps to form an executive body to administer rebel-held territory inside Syria, electing Ghassan Hitto as interim premier at a meeting in Turkey on Tuesday.

But a League official said the National Coalition needed to go further. Hitto's election "is important but is not enough," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We are still waiting for the formation of the interim government."

Hitto will be among the opposition delegates addressing the Doha summit, National Coalition member Ahmed Ramadan told AFP.

"We will be represented by interim Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto, National Coalition head Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, and the chief of staff of the (rebel) Syrian Free Army, General Selim Idriss," Ramadan said.

"For the first time ever, the delegation should be addressing the Arab summit."

Hitto is charged with forming a government of technocrats to establish the rule of law and basic services in rebel-held areas.

But his election highlighted deep divisions within the opposition bloc, with at least 12 of its 49 members announcing the following day that they were suspending their membership in protest.

The dissidents included the Coalition's deputy head Soheir Atassi and spokesman Walid al-Bunni.

Hitto is seen by some opposition figures as the Islamist choice for premier, even though he has lived in the United States for decades, working as an IT executive. US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said he was "more Texan than Muslim Brotherhood."

The Arab League suspended Syria's membership in November 2011 after Damascus rejected a peace plan proposal calling for an end to the violence but demanding that Assad step down.

The bloc also imposed a raft of other sanctions, including suspending trade with the government, freezing its bank accounts abroad, and suspending air links.

The Damascus government accuses Qatar and its heavyweight neighbour Saudi Arabia of fanning the conflict by arming the rebels with Western connivance.

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 70,000 people since March 2011, prompted more than a million to flee abroad, and displaced four million more inside the country.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130322/syria-rebels-address-arab-summit-await-seat