After UK, France ready to arm Syrian rebels

President insists insurgents are fighting on an uneven battlefield, as Russia and others are arming Bashar Assad’s forces

French President Francois Hollande speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, March 14, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Virginia Mayo)
French President Francois Hollande speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, March 14, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Virginia Mayo)

PARIS (AP) — French President Francois Hollande said Thursday his country and Britain are pushing the European Union to quickly lift its arms embargo on Syria so that they can send weapons to rebel fighters.

The two countries have led the way in seeking help for the rebels, but Germany and others have been skeptical about sending weapons, pointing to the risk of further escalation in an already volatile region.

Hollande insisted that the rebels are fighting on an uneven battlefield, because Russia and others are arming Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

“France must first convince its European partners. But we cannot let a people be massacred like this,” Hollande told reporters in Brussels where he is attending an EU summit. “So already the British and French are in favor of lifting the embargo.”

He added that “we must exert pressure and show we are ready to back the opposition.”

The British government said that it is not ruling out any options to help the opposition.

Earlier, Hollande’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said France and Britain are pushing for an urgent EU meeting “now” on lifting the embargo.

A unanimous EU vote would be needed to lift the embargo before it is up for extension in May. But if that doesn’t happen, a French diplomat said France is leaning toward refusing to vote for the extension — a position Britain has also hinted at — which would spell its end.

The diplomat, who isn’t authorized to be publicly named because of government policy, added 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 Assad’s regime remain far more deadly, systematic and widespread.

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.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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