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France ready to arm Syrian rebels

March 14, 2013

Syrian rebels pray before an operation against regime forces to take over the Umayyad Mosque in the old city of Aleppo in northern Syria. -AFP File Photo

PARIS: France's foreign minister said Thursday that France and Britain are ready to help arm Syrian rebel fighters even if other European Union countries disagree.

The British government took a more cautious position, saying only that it is not ruling out any options to help the opposition. Some international diplomats warn that more weapons are the last thing that Syria needs right now after a two-year civil war that has left 70,000 dead.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France and Britain are pushing for an urgent EU meeting to try to persuade the bloc to lift an arms embargo on Syria. ''Lifting the embargo is one of the only means left to make things move politically'' in Syria, Fabius said on France-Info radio.

He said France and Britain will ask for an EU meeting ''now,'' possibly by the end of this month. The current embargo expires in May. Asked what France would do if European partners refuse to lift the embargo, he responded, ''France is a sovereign nation.'' He didn't elaborate.

A French diplomat said France is not talking about breaking the EU embargo but is leaning toward refusing to extend it in May _ a position Britain has also hinted at. The diplomat, who isn't authorized to be publicly named according to government policy, said it was too early to discuss what kind of arms France might supply.

Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement Thursday that the international effort for a political solution in Syria ''has little chance of gathering momentum unless the regime feels compelled to come to the negotiating table. They need to feel that the balance on the ground has shifted against them.''

Referring to the EU embargo, the statement said, ''We are not prepared to rule out any options to bring an end to the suffering of millions of innocent Syrians.''

Talk of arming the rebels comes as concerns have been raised about abuses by opposition fighters. Human rights monitors said in a report Thursday that Syrian rebels routinely kill captured soldiers and suspected regime informers. However, the report also said that abuses by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad remain far more deadly, systematic and widespread.

Cameron and other EU leaders are likely to discuss Syria at a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. Fabius argued that military situation in Syria is currently ''imbalanced'' in favor of the regime, which is receiving weapons from Russia and Iran. He didn't address the source of the weapons the Syrian rebels are currently using, which are believed to be coming from non-EU sources in the Arab world.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, warned Wednesday that arming Syria's rebels would be a breach of international law. Moscow has been the main ally of Assad, shielding him from UN sanctions over the two-year conflict.