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New Syria opposition chief wants no-strings aid

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[November 10, 2012]  DOHA, Qatar (AP) -- The newly elected leader of Syria's main opposition bloc said in an interview Saturday that the international community should support those trying to topple President Bashar Assad's regime without any conditions and not link aid to an overhaul of the opposition leadership.

George Sabra, head of the Syrian National Council, said he and other opposition figures are disappointed with foreign backers.

"Unfortunately, we get nothing from them, except some statements, some encouragement" while Assad's allies "give the regime everything," Sabra told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a weeklong SNC conference in the Qatari capital of Doha. He said the Syrian opposition needs hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and weapons to defeat regime forces.

Sabra, 65, was heading an SNC delegation Saturday in talks with rival opposition groups on forging a new, broader opposition leadership group -- an idea promoted by Western and Arab backers of those trying to oust Assad.

The SNC has been reluctant to join such a group, fearing it would lose influence within a larger platform. Senior SNC figures suggested Saturday's meeting would be the start of several days of negotiations over the size and mission of such a group. They said they are willing to join a larger group, but that the details need to be worked out carefully.

The author of the plan, veteran dissident Riad Seif, has said the international community would quickly recognize a unified group and use it as a conduit for billions of dollars in aid to the uprising against Assad.

The outcome of the talks will be crucial not just for the SNC -- an Istanbul-based group widely seen as out of touch with activists on the ground and fighters dying on the battlefields in Syria -- but also for the future of the entire opposition.

In the interview, Sabra acknowledged that some of the criticism of the SNC was justified, but said that this should not serve as an excuse to hold up international aid.

"Don't hang (your) delay to provide Syrians what they need, what they want, on the neck of the opposition," he said, in a message to the international community.

"Let's say, we have our responsibility, no doubt about that, and we will carry this responsibility, but we need from the international community to carry their responsibility also," he said.

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Sabra, a Christian and left-wing veteran dissident, spent eight years in Syrian jails in the 1980s and 1990s. He was jailed twice after the outbreak of the uprising against Assad in March 2011, and fled to Jordan on foot in the fall of 2011 to avoid further detention.

As a Christian, Sabra's election late Friday as the new SNC president, could help counter Western concerns about possible Islamist influence over the group.

Under the plan and if it is set up, the new, broader Syrian opposition would form a transitional government in rebel-held areas and presumably serve as a conduit for foreign aid to the opposition. The rebels' Western backers have declined to send weapons to the rebels, for fear they will fall into the wrong hands.

Syria's opposition says it needs weapons to break the military stalemate in Syria and defeat Assad. Asked Friday what he wants from the international community, Sabra said: "Weapons, weapons, weapons."

[Associated Press; By KARIN LAUB]

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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