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PARIS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council has begun informal talks on whether to impose sanctions on Syria's rebel al-Nusra Front after it pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri this week, France said on Friday.
The militant Islamist element of the Syrian conflict poses a quandary for Western powers and their Arab allies, which favour the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad but are alarmed by Sunni Muslim jihadi fighters whose fiercely anti-Shi'ite ideology has fuelled sectarian tensions in the Middle East.
Speaking to reporters, French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said given Wednesday's announcement by Nusra chief Abu Mohammad al-Golani it was logical to look at how to deal with the Syrian group in the framework of the "fight against terrorism".
"One option is to act at the U.N. Security Council ... through the al Qaeda 1267 sanctions committee ," he said.
"It is one solution that we are studying and discussing informally with our U.N. Security Council partners and European allies," he said.
He said talks were still at a very early stage.
Potential sanctions could include assets being frozen and travel bans. The U.S. State Department in December designated the group a foreign terrorist organisation.
Experts have long said Nusra was receiving support from al Qaeda-linked insurgents in neighbouring Iraq. The group has claimed responsibility for deadly bombings in Damascus and Aleppo, and its fighters have joined other rebel brigades in attacks on Assad's forces.
At least 70,000 people have been killed since protests led by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority broke out two years ago against Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Assad has repeatedly said the rebels are Islamists funded and armed by Turkey and Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states and with Nusra now pledging allegiance to Qaeda he may feel emboldened.
Lalliot said he had seen a report the Syrian government had sent a letter to the same sanctions committee on Thursday to ask for Nusra to be added to the list. But he said the demand had still not been formally made.
"These are statements made by Syrian officials," Lalliot said. "One thing is for sure. When the request is officially made, France will refuse any attempt by the Syrian regime that tries through this to label all the Syrian opposition as terrorists."
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Jason Webb)