Syria rebels capture airport in oil-rich region

Syrian rebels took control of a major airport as government forces bombarded Damascus and towns in the Dera'a region, killing at least 65 civilians between Friday and Saturday morning, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

France accepts new Syrian ambassador from opposition group

A Syrian man walks past destroyed buildings in the town of Taftanaz, on the outskirts of Idlib on Friday. (Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)

Syrian rebels took control of a major airport as government forces bombarded Damascus and towns in the Dera'a region, killing at least 65 civilians between Friday and Saturday morning, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Fighters took over 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 rights group said on Saturday.

The airport, near the border town of al-Boukamal, has been turned into a military base during Syria's 20 months of conflict.

The organization is also reporting that the towns of al-Ghariya, al-Sharqiya and Tal Shihab in Dera'a have been under attack, as well as the cities of Jisreen, Bebila and Douma.

Clashes in the country's 20-month-old civil conflict are still taking place in the Barzeh neighbourhood of the capital.

As the fighting continues, the newly-reformed Syrian opposition is gaining support in Europe.

French President François Hollande and the new Syrian opposition leader announced plans Saturday to install an ambassador to represent Syria in France.

The surprise move came after talks at France's presidential palace between Hollande and Moaz al-Khatib, head of the newly formed Syrian opposition coalition. France recognized the coalition days after it was formed on Sunday — and so far is the only Western country to do so.

Academic takes up post in France

Al-Khatib said the new envoy will be academic Mounzir Makhous, describing him as "one of the first to speak of liberty" in Syria.  He holds four doctorate degrees and belongs to the Muslim Alawite sect of Islam, like Syrian President Bashar Assad, al-Khatib said. The new envoy was at the talks Saturday in Paris. 

It was widely believed that France might agree to the appointment of an ambassador but not before a provisional Syrian government was formed. Al-Khatib suggested that a provisional government would come quickly.

French President François Hollande, right, shakes hand with Mounzir Makhous, newly named ambassador in France of the Syrian opposition. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)

"We have no hidden agenda," al-Khatib said in a bid to reassure other nations.

More than 36,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising against Assad began in March 2011 and the new coalition is pressing for the means to defend Syrian civilians.

France has taken the lead in efforts to oust Assad's regime, and Hollande reiterated Saturday that the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces is for France the sole representative of the Syrian people and a future provisional government.

Hollande also confirmed that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was also at Saturday's talks, 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.

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. 

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, with the coalition's two vice-presidents, Riad Seif and Suheir Atassi, met Friday in London with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and representatives of France, Germany, the United States and Turkey and Qatar. Lifting the arms embargo was discussed there as well.   

With files from CBC News