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Middle East

EU ministers explore fresh help to Syria opposition

A Free Syrian Army sniper takes up position in the Seif El Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo in this September 2, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal/Files

PAPHOS, Cyprus: EU foreign ministers gather in Cyprus some 100 kilometres from the Syrian coast Friday to explore how to best assist its opposition while defusing a humanitarian crisis looming in Europe's backyard.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has put Syria top of the agenda for two days of informal talks starting around 0930 GMT, the first meeting of EU foreign ministers since the summer break.

The talks, which will also address deepening worry over Iran's nuclear programme, come amid increasing concern over mounting violence between the opposition and President Bashar al-Assad's regime that last month alone sent a record 100,000 people fleeing across the borders.

Turkey, which along with Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon is hosting tens of thousands of refugees, has suggested creating protected safe havens inside Syria for civilians seeking to escape the violence.

But the idea fell on deaf ears at the UN Security Council last week amid concern even among Western governments over the implications of such a controversial military operation.

France is expected instead to urge its partners at Friday's talks in the classy Cypriot resort of Paphos to find ways to help funnel medicines, cash and other resources to civilians trapped in rebel-held areas.

France and Britain too are agreed on the need to speed up the transition from Assad's regime in Syria to a new government, French President Francois Hollande said Thursday after talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

"We must accelerate the political transition (and) help the opposition to form a government," said Hollande.

But Europe remains divided over how best to help Syria's fractured opposition, under fire from many capitals that are reluctant to provide support due to continuing internal divisions and the presence of Islamist extremists fighting on its behalf.

And Washington has cautioned that before setting up any transitional government, the opposition first needs to unite around a plan.

"That's the first order of business -- for them to all agree on what a transition ought to look like," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said late last month.

 

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