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Syrian opposition group chooses George Sabra as leader

The opposition Syrian National Council has elected a retired geography teacher and left-leaning political veteran as its new president. George Sabra, a prominent Syrian dissident for decades, fled the country this year.

The Syrian National Council chose its latest leader at a meeting in Doha on Friday. The umbrella opposition group, based in neighboring Turkey, held a ballot among its 41-member general secretariat - with George Sabra winning 28 of the votes.

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George Sabra's new post at head of SNC

Sabra, a prominent Christian member of the Syrian opposition for decades, takes over from Abdelbaset Sieda after losing out to him in the previous SNC leadership contest in May. Mohammed Farooq Taifoor of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected as Sabra's deputy.

The veteran member of the Syrian Democratic People's Party, called the Syrian Communist Party until 2005, immediately appealed for international assistance in the country's conflict.

"We need only one thing to support our right to survive and to protect ourselves: We need weapons, we need weapons," Sabra told reporters after the vote.

He also said he would "work with other components of the Syrian opposition to accelerate the fall of the criminal regime." To this end, the SNC will start talks with other opposition groups, including those based within Syria, on Saturday. The goal is to establish a wider opposition body, seeking broad recognition as a government-in-waiting. The other opposition groups, however, began their negotiations on Friday - ignoring an SNC appeal for a 24-hour delay.

The SNC has been under considerable international pressure to demonstrate that it is an inclusive opposition organization. In a setback on this front, the Local Coordination Committees - a network of on-the-ground activists within Syria - withdrew from the SNC on Friday, citing its failure to adopt "serious and effective" reforms to make it more representative.

Sabra said that his election displayed that the SNC was not plagued by sectarianism, saying "the people here are Muslims and they elected a Christian." Bashar Assad's government tries to depict itself as defenders of the Christian minority in Syria against Islamist extremism.

A lifetime opposing Assads

George Sabra has served time in jails both under President Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez, the country's previous leader.

Sabra was jailed for eight years during the reign of Bashar Assad's father after he was arrested in 1987 as part of a crackdown on the Syrian Communist Party. Having appeared in some of the earliest marches against Bashar Assad in 2011, he was twice detained by authorities for inciting unrest. Sabra subsequently fled the country, fearing he'd be arrested again if he stayed, joining the SNC as a representative of the Syrian Democratic People's Party.

The 65-year-old was born in the Qatana suburb of Damascus and has degrees in geography and education technology systems and earned a living as a geography teacher for many years. He has been politically active and a fierce opponent of Assad since he was a student, joining the Syrian Communist Party in 1970.

Bomb blasts on Saturday

Barely a day after Sabra's election, twin car bombs exploded on Saturday at a club for military officers in Southern Syria, leaving at least 20 soldiers dead, according to a human rights watchdog.

The bombs went off within minutes of each other in the city of Daraa, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The state news organization SANA confirmed the incident and that casualties had resulted, but did not comment further.

msh/sej (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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