Middle East

France proposes defensive weapons for Syria rebels

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius waves as he arrives for the ministerial meeting of the Arab League and European Union in the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on November 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI

DAMASCUS: France raised the prospect on Thursday of providing Syria's rebels with defensive weapons as Turkey joined it and the Gulf Arab states in recognising the newly unified opposition.

France said it would discuss its proposal to ease the European Union arms embargo on both sides in the 20-month-conflict with its partners in the 27-nation bloc but Russia said any such move would be a violation of international law.

The diplomatic manoeuvring came as the Syrian army pressed an operation in areas around Damascus to oust rebels who have stubbornly clung to gains they made in July, and as fighting raged in the east close to Iraqi border.

In Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he would raise the idea of excluding defensive weapons for the rebels from the current blanket EU embargo to help them protect the areas they hold from bombardment by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

"For the moment, there is an embargo, so there are no arms being delivered from the European side. The issue... will no doubt be raised for defensive arms," he told RTL radio.

"The issue will be raised because the (opposition) coalition has asked us to do so," he said, adding: "This is something that we can only do in coordination with the Europeans."

"France's position for the moment is to say that we must not militarise the conflict, but it is evidently unacceptable that there are liberated zones and that they be bombarded by Bashar's planes."

French President Francois Hollande is to hold talks on Saturday with the head of the new opposition National Coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, his office said.

France on Tuesday became the first Western government to recognise the coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and the same day Khatib called on world powers to arm the rebels with "specialised weapons."

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Thursday that Ankara too now "recognises the Syrian National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the people of Syria."

Turkey has been accused for months by the Assad government of serving as a conduit for arms supplies to the rebels from Gulf Arab states Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

In Moscow, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said "promises are being made from a number of capitals of massive supplies of modern weapons.

"Outside help to the opposition waging an armed battle against a legitimate government is a gross violation of fundamental norms of international law."

Lukashevich added that the latest developments, including what he said was rebel refusal to talk with Assad, were "in direct contravention" of the so-called Geneva peace plan championed by former UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan.

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the priority must be to end the bloodshed rather than form an opposition bloc that refuses to negotiate.

"It is essential that an end to bloodshed in Syria is reached," Lavrov said in Riyadh after meeting Gulf Arab leaders, adding that key to that was the Geneva plan.

Washington has expressed caution about delivering weapons to the rebels for fear they could fall into the hands of jihadists.

"One of the things we have to be on guard about... is that we're not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm," US President Barack Obama said on Wednesday.

Obama said Washington was encouraged by the formation of new National Coalition after months of bickering in opposition ranks but was not yet ready to recognise it.

Britain too has stopped short of recognising the coalition. Foreign Secretary William Hague said he would hold talks with its leaders on Friday.

On the ground, the army launched a major operation in the Damascus region, hitting rebel positions from the air and on the ground, as troops battled to hold on to their last positions around the town of Albu Kamal near the Iraqi border, a watchdog said.

Eight soldiers were killed resisting a rebel attack on Hamdan airbase outside the town while three rebels were killed after capturing the security headquarters in Albu Kamal, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

At least 48 people were killed in fighting nationwide on Thursday, the Britain-based watchdog said, adding that the overall death toll since the uprising broke out in March last year now tops 39,000.





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