Middle East

France, Britain to push EU to end Syria arms ban

French President Francois Hollande speaks during a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, March 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS: France and Britain were set Friday to push European leaders to lift a ban on supplying arms to Syria's rebels, as the country marked the second anniversary of the start of its unrest.

London and Paris were to raise the issue of the EU's arms embargo on Syria on the final day of a summit in Brussels, with both warning they were ready to break ranks with their European partners to supply weapons to the rebels.

French President Francois Hollande said Thursday that attempts to find a political solution to Syria's conflict had failed and the rebels needed to have the means to defend themselves.

Hollande said Paris was ready to "take its responsibilities" and supply the rebels with arms if other EU nations were unwilling to lift the embargo.

"Political solutions have now failed (in Syria), despite every pressure," Hollande said. "We must go further because for two years there has been a clear willingness by Bashar al-Assad to use every means to hit at his own people."

Hollande had upped the stakes on arrival at the two-day summit, bluntly telling journalists: "We want Europeans to lift the arms embargo."

"We cannot allow a people to be massacred by a regime that for now does not want a political transition," Hollande said.

But a number of EU countries, including Germany, fear that dropping the arms ban will see a flood of weapons into Syria that will only escalate the conflict.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday the EU needed to "proceed very cautiously" on lifting the embargo.

"If our partners in the European Union, in this case Britain and France, have a changed assessment of the situation, then the foreign ministers are of course ready to discuss this subject again," she said.

"But we have to be careful that the other side will not be provided with even more arms by countries that have another stance on Assad than Germany and the member states of the European Union," Merkel said.

Sources said Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron held bilateral talks on Syria on Thursday and that the subject was to come up again on the second day of the summit, despite not being on the official agenda.

A French diplomatic source said no concrete moves were expected on the embargo on Friday.

"The decision will not be taken this morning, but we must start the debate," the source said.

Paris and London are expected to press for quick new EU talks on the embargo, which was part of a package of sanctions extended on February 28 for three months by EU foreign ministers, though such sanctions are always reviewed in case events change.

At the February talks, ministers agreed to ease the embargo to enable any EU state to provide non-lethal aid or training to the insurgents. Britain quickly pledged armoured vehicles and protective clothing for the opposition.

The State Department said Thursday that Washington looked favourably on efforts to give more support to the rebels, but did not explicitly back the idea of arms supplies.

"We heard from some of those governments about their interest in lightening the EU arms embargo," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

"We're obviously not going to get in the middle of their internal discussions, but we certainly want to see as many governments as possible provide appropriate support to the Syrian opposition coalition.

Syria's main opposition bloc, the National Coalition, has welcomed efforts to lift the embargo as as "a step in the right direction".

But Assad's government, like its key foreign ally Russia, said any arms shipments to the opposition would be a "flagrant violation" of international law.





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