BEIRUT: Arab League ministers decided Wednesday to let member nations arm Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar Assad, and invited an opposition coalition to take the League seat formerly occupied by Damascus.
The Arab League’s decision came as Syrian rebels abducted more than 20 U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights cease-fire zone.
Previously the League had stressed that the Syrian political opposition and rebels should be supported by humanitarian and diplomatic means during the civil war, which has cost an estimated 70,000 lives.
However, a final statement issued at the end of a ministerial meeting in Cairo said they had “stressed the right of each state according to its wishes to offer all types of self-defense, including military, to support the resilience of the Syrian people and the Free [Syrian] Army.”
Qatar has led a push against Damascus at the League, but Wednesday’s decision was not unanimous. Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria refused to endorse the final statement’s sections on Syria.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told a news conference that the ministers had invited the opposition Syrian National Coalition – an umbrella body of anti-Assad political and rebel groups – to occupy the Syrian seat at the League held by Damascus until it was suspended from the organization two years ago.
Walid al-Bunni, spokesman for the opposition coalition, welcomed the Arab decision as “better late than never” and said the organization now wanted U.N. representation.
On the ground, a group of armed fighters linked to the Syrian opposition detained more than 20 U.N. peacekeepers in the increasingly volatile zone separating Israeli and Syrian troops on the Golan Heights.
The U.N. Security Council demanded their immediate and unconditional release.
The capture of the peacekeepers marked a new escalation in the spillover of Syria’s civil war. It followed the Feb. 25 announcement that a member of the peacekeeping force, known as UNDOF, was missing.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the current Security Council president, said talks were under way between U.N. officials from the peacekeeping force and the captors.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, who briefed the council behind closed doors, identified the captors as being from a group associated with the Syrian opposition, Churkin said. “There was no fighting, according to his briefing to us,” he added. “My understanding is they took over the trucks in which the UNDOF personnel [were] moving around.” U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said about 20 U.N. observers had been on a regular supply mission when they were stopped by approximately 30 armed fighters near an observation post that was damaged in heavy combat last weekend and had been evacuated.
A video posted online by activists showed a group of armed rebels standing around at least three white U.N. vehicles with the words UNDOF on them, allegedly in the village of Jamlah bordering Israel in Deraa province.
The video, circulated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the peacekeepers held by the rebels were 20 Filipinos. It accused the peacekeepers of assisting the Syrian regime to redeploy in an area near the Golan that the fighters had seized a few days ago in battles that left 11 fighters and 19 regime troops dead.
A man identified as Abu Qaed al-Faleh, spokesman for the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, announced the group was holding the peacekeepers until Assad’s forces withdrew from Jamlah.
Elsewhere, rebels completed their capture of Raqqa, the first major city to fall completely into rebel hands, activists said. “Raqqa city is now out of the army’s control, after military intelligence troops surrendered to rebels following fierce clashes that raged for two days,” the Observatory told AFP.
“It is the first provincial capital out of regime control.”
Earlier, an air raid on Raqqa killed and wounded dozens of people, the Observatory said. Warplanes also bombarded Homs in central Syria, on the fourth day of a major offensive in the country’s third-largest city.
Near Damascus, the air force bombarded several rebel enclaves, said the Observatory which relies on a vast network of activists and medics on the ground.
In Belgium, the top rebel commander renewed an appeal to the international community to send weapons to the opposition. Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, asked for anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to protect Syrian civilians from Assad’s warplanes.
“The people don’t understand why the international community just looks at the news on their TVs,” he said. “They just speak in the media and say, ‘That is not good and the regime must stop and must go, Bashar must go.’ And they don’t act.”
But Britain seemed to be stepping up its support. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country would provide armored vehicles, body armor and search-and-rescue equipment to the opposition. But he said Britain was sticking to the EU’s sanctions against Syria, which include an arms embargo.