LONDON, April 10: Syrian opposition leaders renewed their appeals for arms at a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday, but a top jihadist group’s pledge of loyalty to Al Qaeda deepened western concerns that weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

Kerry and other G8 foreign ministers held talks with members of the Syrian National Coalition, including opposition prime minister Ghassan Hitto, on the sidelines of a two-day ministerial meeting in London.

The US said it was mulling ways to step up help for Syria’s rebels, while Kerry also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a bid to find common ground on ending the conflict between the rebels and President Bashar-al-Assad.

Kerry will meanwhile attend a “Friends of Syria” core group meeting on April 20 in the Turkish city of Istanbul, a US official said.

But a statement on Wednesday by the head of Syria’s jihadist Al-Nusra Front pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri will only increase western doubts about arming the rebels.

A top State Department official confirmed that, during a lunch hosted by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, the Syrian opposition leaders renewed appeals for lethal aid but Kerry “didn’t promise anything”.

The US and EU are currently providing non-lethal aid such as communications equipment, and are beginning to distribute food and medical supplies to the Free Syrian Army, but have stopped short of providing weaponry.

The announcement by the Al-Nusra front is likely to bolster assertions by Assad’s regime that it is fighting “terrorists” who want to impose an Islamic state.

“We are always considering a variety of options, we are going to continue to aid the opposition, working with them in terms of what they need, in terms of what we’re willing to provide,” the US official said.

Wednesday’s talks had focused on ways of changing Assad’s calculations about the outcome of the conflict which is now in its third year and has cost some 70,000 lives, according to the UN.

“We need to have this continuing conversation which is why we are going back to Istanbul,” the official said. But he said the lunch with six Syrian opposition leaders was “a good, substantive discussion”.

All sides emphasised “the importance of working together, the importance of them getting themselves more organised, which they said they were in the process of doing”.

Hague said the Syria conflict would be “top of the agenda” when the G8 foreign ministers meet for dinner later Wednesday and again for formal talks on Thursday.—AFP