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Dissidents in Syria finally unite against Assad regime

A wide-ranging coalition of dissidents dealt the most significant political challenge yet to President Bashar al-Assad yesterday by declaring an opposition government-in-exile and calling for the toppling of their leader.

Members of some of the country's most prominent political factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood and other high profile Syrian émigrés, formally announced the birth of the Syrian National Council (SNC) in Istanbul and committed themselves to routing the Assad regime.

"This is the consensus we have been striving for," said one activist from Hama. "The world should recognise the SNC and respect the will of the Syrian people."

It came on the day that US ambassador Robert Ford was warned by a state-run newspaper not to meddle in Syrian affairs.

The article, printed in Al Baath, came two days after pro-government protesters attacked Mr Ford's car with eggs and iron bars.

"If you want to avoid rotten eggs, you should advise your country to stop its blatant interference in Syrian affairs and its feverish efforts to seek sanctions against Syria from the UN Security Council," the newspaper commented.

The country's state-run news agency also claimed yesterday that troops had taken control of Al-Rastan, where hundreds of army deserters had reportedly been battling Assad's forces.

The claim was backed up by a prominent activist, who told Reuters news agency the defectors had retreated from the area.

Yesterday's declaration, agreed by a broad cross-section of Islamists, secularists, Kurdish political figures and long-time Syrian dissidents, was the most plausible attempt at forming one central organising body for the opposition yet.

A statement from the SNC said its members were aiming to achieve "the wishes and hopes of our people in overthrowing the current regime".

Mohamed Karkouti, a member of the newly-founded organisation, said: "It's a government in exile. We want to provide this revolution with political weapons."

According to prominent SNC member Bourhan Ghalioun, the new coalition aims to provide a united international front for the opposition, while UK-based Syrian journalist Hussam Mohammad claimed the organisation would enable Syria's activists to act with one voice. "The Foreign Office receives 10 or 15 visits every month from different groups," he said. "From now on there will only be one group."

Activists in Syria told The Independent they welcomed the development. "I'm happy," said one in Damascus. "Now we have a solid interface to represent us in front of the international community."