PARIS (AP) — France on Saturday welcomed a member of the Syrian opposition as the country's ambassador, a bold bid to confer legitimacy on the week-old opposition coalition and encourage other Western nations to follow suit.
The new envoy, Mounzir Makhous, appeared before the press after talks at France's presidential palace between President Francois Hollande and the head of the newly formed Syrian opposition coalition.
France has swiftly stepped out ahead of Western allies nearly since the start of the Syrian uprising 20 months ago. Saturday's surprise announcement came even before the brand new coalition has named its provisional government and before a place in Paris to house the envoy has been found.
"There will be an ambassador of Syria in France," Hollande announced. France expelled its Syrian ambassador in May, along with more a half-dozen other countries.
Mouaz Al-Khatib, the opposition leader, described Makhous as "one of the first to speak of liberty" in Syria. He holds four doctorate degrees and belongs to the Muslim Alawite sect of President Bashar Assad, demonstrating an effort to reach out to all of Syria's people, al-Khatib said.
France recognized the coalition days after it was formed last Sunday — and so far is the only Western country to do so.
France also took the lead in backing the Libyan opposition that ultimately ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi, and flew the first mission of the international coalition providing air support to Libyan rebels.
There is widespread fear that without a legitimate opposition force the civil war in Syria could degenerate into sectarian battles pitting community upon community.
But, the United States and other EU nations have said they prefer to wait and see whether the coalition truly represents the variety of people that make up Syria before they recognize it.
Al-Khatib suggested that a provisional government made up of technocrats would come quickly, a move that would allow the ambassador to take up his functions. A military command is also being formed and a coordination center devoted to humanitarian aid will be set up in Cairo.
"''I say frankly that we have no hidden agenda. There are no hidden accords, no hidden decisions were made," al-Khatib said in a bid to reassure other nations.
"Our role will end as soon as this regime falls. The Syrian people can then decide in all freedom the democratic institutions, the form of constitutional regime that they want," he said. "The people can take their decisions freely."
A Syrian government official dismissed Makhous' appointment, saying it was made at the behest of France. "If France has appointed him, then he is a French ambassador, not a Syrian one," he said.
The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the subject.
More than 36,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011 and the new coalition is pressing for the means to defend Syrian civilians.
On Saturday, Syrian rebels took control of the Hamdan airport in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour along the border with Iraq after days of heavy fighting with Assad's forces, Rami Abdul-Rahman, the chief of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.
The airport, near the border town of al-Boukamal, has been turned into a military base during Syria's 20 months of conflict.
Rebels had been making advances in al-Boukamal for weeks. On Thursday, they seized control of the military security building and a military checkpoint at the edge of the border town.
Separately, six people were killed and several were wounded when a mortar round hit a Damascus suburb of Jaramana, state-run SANA news agency reported. The agency said blamed the attack on terrorists, a term the regime uses for rebels, fighting to topple Assad.
In Paris, security for the visit of al-Khatib and his delegation was particularly tight, with sharpshooters on the rooftops of buildings facing the Elysee Palace courtyard where Hollande and al-Khatib spoke to reporters.
Hollande also confirmed that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will raise the issue of lifting the EU arms embargo against Syria at a meeting Monday in Brussels among European Union foreign ministers.
Fabius has suggested supplying defensive weapons so Syrian rebels can protect themselves from attacks by Assad's regime. Since May 2011, the EU has imposed a ban on the export of weapons and equipment to Syria that could be used for "internal repression."
Fabius will also press EU partners to recognize the coalition, Hollande said.
Hollande said al-Khatib reassured him that the coalition he leads seeks unity of the Syrian people and the French aim in moving quickly is to "assure its legitimacy and credibility."
The coalition replaces the fractious Syrian National Council as the main opposition group — also recognized first by France — although that group makes up about a third of the 60-plus members of the new coalition.
Al-Khatib met Friday in London with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and representatives of France, Germany, the United States and Turkey and Qatar.
Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Barbara Surk in Beirut and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.
Ganley can be reached on twitter.com at Elaine_Ganley.