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UK, France press EU on giving arms to Syria rebels

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm •  Published: March 22, 2013

DUBLIN (AP) — European Union foreign ministers displayed their divisions Friday over whether to start shipping weapons to rebels in Syria, with Britain and France isolated in their efforts to boost the opposition's firepower.

The two-day talks opened in Dublin Castle just hours after a suicide bomb killed at least 49 people in a Damascus mosque, including a senior cleric loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Both Assad and the major opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, condemned the attack.

British Foreign Minister William Hague said the European Union's policy of providing only non-lethal equipment to the National Coalition must end if Syria's primary opposition forces are to oust Assad from power.

"In order to support a diplomatic and political settlement which is essential for peaceful transition, it will be necessary for us to increase the support that we give to the National Coalition on the ground," Hague said in comments mirrored by his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius.

Fabius said EU governments must agree on "how to stop Bashar Assad from continuing to bomb and massacre the Syrian population and the opposition."

But the other 25 EU ministers rallied behind the cautionary views of Germany, which argues that increased aid to rebel-held areas should be confined to improving their access to water, power, food and medical care.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he accepted that Britain, France and the U.S. had "good reasons" for wanting to increase the ability of opposition forces to defeat Assad's military following two years of civil war.

But he warned that sending weapons was likely to have unintended and negative consequences. He said more civilians would be killed in crossfire, and Western-supplied weapons could end up in the hands of anti-Western jihadists, who are being blamed for Thursday night's mosque bombing.

"We are still reluctant on lifting the arms embargo," Westerwelle said, adding, "We have to avoid a conflagration and we have to prevent that aggressive offensive weapons come into the wrong hands."

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