(AP) French President Francois 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.
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.
''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.
In other news, Turkish cameraman Cuneyt Unal who was captured by Syrian forces while covering fighting in the city of Aleppo in August has been released and will return to Turkey, a delegation who negotiated his freedom told Turkish media.
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.
Hollande said al-Khatib, a preacher-turned-activist, reassured him that the coalition he leads seeks unity of the Syrian people and France aim in moving quickly is to assure its legitimacy and credibility.
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.
There will be an ambassador of Syria in France, Hollande, with al-Khatib at his side, told reporters after the meeting. He conceded later that a proper locale must still be found to house him. The current Syrian Embassy building doesn't belong to France, he noted.
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.
The two journalists who had been held by Syrian forces Unal and reporter Bashar Fahmi a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian origin, had been working for the U.S.-based Alhurra TV.
Turkish opposition lawmaker Hasan Akgol said Saturday that Unal was in Damascus and would return to Turkey later in the day with a Turkish opposition party delegation, which held talks with Assad and other Syrian officials for his release. There was no information on Fahmi's whereabouts.
Unal told Turkey's NTV television that he and Fahmi were caught up in the fighting in Aleppo on Aug. 20 that killed Japanese journalist Mika Yamamoto. He said Fahmi was seriously injured in the fighting.
The cameraman carried his injured colleague into an apartment building where Aleppo residents tended to his wound. Unal left to seek more help but was captured by a group who later handed him over to Syrian government forces.
Unal said he has been locked up alone in a prison cell in Aleppo for the past three months living on bread and potatoes, but was not ill-treated.
With emotion in his voice, Unal said he was happy to be released but was still in shock.
Ganley can be reached on twitter.com at Elaine_Ganley.