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France would acknowledge rebel government in Syria

This image from a citizen journalism video reportedly shows a Syrian military helicopter on fire and falling to the ground after being hit during fighting in Damascus.

SHAAM NEWS NETWORK VIA AP

This image from a citizen journalism video reportedly shows a Syrian military helicopter on fire and falling to the ground after being hit during fighting in Damascus.

BEIRUT — France will recognize a provisional Syrian government as soon as it has been formed, President Francois Hollande said Monday, urging Syria’s fractured political opposition to establish one as soon as possible.

Hollande also said that France, like the United States and Britain, would view any use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad of Syria as a legitimate justification for military intervention, even without a UN Security Council resolution.

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‘‘With our partners we remain very vigilant regarding preventing the use of chemical weapons, which for the international community would be a legitimate reason for direct intervention,’’ Hollande said during an annual foreign policy speech to French ambassadors, his first as president.

The statements by Hollande represented the most forceful attempt by the group of Western nations calling for Assad’s ouster to nudge Syria’s marginalized and often squabbling opposition groups toward unity.

While the United States, Britain, and other Western countries have called on Assad to resign and have supported the opposition with nonlethal aid — and US intelligence agents have helped funnel arms to rebel groups — they have not explicitly stated they would recognize a provisional government formed by Assad’s array of political enemies.

Hollande’s statement, made during an annual speech to French diplomats in Paris, came as new violence convulsed Syria, including the possible rebel destruction of a government helicopter gunship and further signs of a rush to the borders by thousands of people seeking safe haven from the 18-month conflict.

‘‘France asks the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government — inclusive and representative — that can become the legitimate representative of the new Syria,’’ Hollande was quoted by news agencies as saying during the speech at the Elysee Palace. ‘‘France will recognize the provisional government of Syria once it is formed.’’

The French leader spoke hours after Syrian antigovernment fighters said they had downed a government helicopter during fierce fighting in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. Syrian state television confirmed that a helicopter had crashed in the neighborhood of Qaboun, without detailing the cause.

In an unverified video posted on the Internet on Monday purporting to show the crash, flames appear around a falling helicopter, before it bursts into a fireball and plummets to the ground. Another video appeared to show wreckage, with the charred fuselage and a rotor resting in a residential alleyway.

The Athar brigade, a rebel group, claimed responsibility, saying in a statement that the helicopter had been shot down ‘‘with the participation of other brigades.’’

Activist groups said the helicopter had been used in a government assault on rebel fighters in Jobar, a patch of suburbs outside Damascus, the capital, that has been racked by periodic, heavy bouts of fighting since last year. After the helicopter went down Monday, activists said government forces had started shelling the area near the crash site.

Syria’s restrictions on journalists make it impossible to confirm the reports.

As it fights an insurgency on several fronts, the Syrian government has become increasingly reliant on warplanes and helicopter gunships to extend its reach.

Military analysts say the government may be struggling to keep aloft its fleet of Mi-25 Hind-D attack helicopters, given the scarcity of spare parts and the intensity of the fighting.

The government did not identify the type of helicopter that crashed Monday. Syria was believed to have about three dozen of the Mi-25 Hind-D helicopters before the start of the conflict.

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