UK steps up contacts with Syrian opposition forces

Mr Hague said Syrian opposition groups must put aside their differences

The UK is stepping up its contacts with Syrian opposition forces, but ministers insist they are not about to recognise them as its legitimate government.

Foreign Secretary William Hague met opposition representatives in London on Monday and has appointed an "ambassador-designate" to them.

The UK has urged President Bashar Assad to step aside after months of violence.

But Mr Hague said the situation was different from Libya, where the UK recognised opposition forces.

Monday's meeting is not the first between the UK government and Syrian oppositions groups, but it is seen as the most significant yet as it is being attended by Mr Hague rather than more junior Foreign Office ministers.

Speaking at a press conference afterwards, Mr Hague said he had stressed the importance of presenting a unified front against President Assad's regime.

Human rights

"At an extreme moment in their nation's history, it is important for opposition groups to be able to put aside their own differences and come to a united view of the way forward," he said.

"I've also emphasised to them the importance of non-violent protest and the importance of retaining international support in this situation through non-violent protest.

"Finally I've emphasised to them the importance of respecting the rights of minorities.

"Syria is a complex country, I've emphasised that democracy is not only holding elections in the future, but entrenching human rights, including the rights of minorities in Syria, and that that will give assurance both within Syria and to people who wish the Syrian people well all over the world."

Start Quote

We do have these problems in Egypt but elections are about to take place there”

End Quote William Hague Foreign Secretary

More than 3,500 people are reported to have died in clashes between Syrian government troops and opposition forces this year, with opposition groups saying 27 people were killed on Saturday.

The UK is pressing for further sanctions against the Assad government while the Arab League has called for a cessation of violence and for independent monitors to be allowed into the country.

Mr Hague said the UK continued to be very concerned about the actions of the regime and was determined to step up international pressure against it.

The European Union has put in place economic sanctions and other measures like travel bans against the regime, but so far the United Nations has failed to issue a Syrian resolution.

In October, Russia and China vetoed an earlier resolution sponsored by the UK, something Mr Hague said was "a great mistake on their part".

The foreign secretary praised the Arab League and said it had put detailed proposals about a possible way forward to the Syrian government but these had not been accepted.

He said he believed more governments would show in the coming weeks that they were willing to work with the opposition.

"The message to the regime is, the rest of the world is talking to the opposition. That we are looking to a different future for Syria."

Earlier, Mr Hague told the BBC the situation was not comparable to that in Libya, where the UK and France recognised the opposition National Transition Council months before the former regime of Muammar Gaddafi was toppled.

"We are not at the point of a formal recognition, partly because there are differing groups not a single council as there was in Libya," he added. "They are not in control of territory in Syria as the council were in Libya and the international community has not reached that point."

President Assad has said that, far from peaceful protests, the demonstrations are being led by armed militants and has warned against any foreign intervention in Syria, saying it could destabilise the whole region.

'Optimistic'

Mr Hague said he was still hopeful for the future of the Arab Spring despite events in Syria and a "worrying" escalation of violence in Egypt ahead of elections later this month.

"We do have these problems in Egypt but elections are about to take place there," he said.

"We have seen successful elections in Tunisia, a new government is now being formed in Libya and important reforms are taking place in Morocco and Jordan. And so we should remain on the optimistic side on what is happening in the Arab Spring, albeit there will be many conflicts and difficulties along the way."

He told the press conference: "It is of course a dangerous moment, there can be many dangerous moments in the transition of power."

On Libya, Mr Hague said the UK wanted to see Col Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, who was captured on Saturday and has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, tried to "international standards".

"Of course it is within the rules of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that people can be tried within the country concerned by agreement with the ICC, meeting international standards.

"I would like to see him tried to international standards whether that be in Libya or The Hague. That is the important thing."

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