UK gives Syrian rebels protection against chemical weapons

William Hague William Hague says there is evidence of chemical attack on Syrian opposition forces

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The UK is equipping Syrian opposition forces with £650,000 of protective equipment against chemical and biological attack, Foreign Secretary William Hague has said.

It includes 5,000 gas escape hoods, nerve-agent pre-treatment tablets and chemical-weapons detector paper.

The equipment is a "gift" from the UK to the Syrian National Coalition.

The UK believes forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have used chemical weapons - something he denies.

'Special urgency'

In a written ministerial statement, Mr Hague said: "There is evidence of attacks using chemical weapons in Syria - including sarin.

"We believe that the use of chemical weapons is sanctioned and ordered by the Assad regime.

"I explained on 10 July that we are exploring the possibility of supplying the Syrian opposition protective equipment against chemical and biological weapons use and yesterday I laid a minute before Parliament providing more detail on these plans.

"We plan to equip the moderate armed opposition with 5,000 escape hoods, nerve-agent pre-treatment tablets (NAPs) and chemical-weapons detector paper."

"The gift will be offered to the Supreme Military Council of the Syrian National Coalition, which the UK recognises as the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian people."

Mr Hague said making the gift was a "matter of special urgency" because "the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria and the urgent need to support the Syrian opposition means that the government needs to act as soon as possible".

He added: "The gift has undergone intense scrutiny to ensure that we are providing the best possible support to the Syrian opposition and that we meet all our international obligations."

The UK has given £348m in humanitarian aid, including food and medical supplies, to those affected by the fighting in Syria as well as the thousands made homeless by the conflict and living in camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

David Cameron led calls for the EU arms embargo on the Syrian opposition to be lifted, although the prospect of the UK providing weapons - a move opposed by many Conservative MPs - is reported to be receding.

The government has said its main focus is on diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire.

But ministers have also suggested that changing the balance of military power on the ground - which has swung in favour of forces loyal to President Assad in recent months - could help accelerate an eventual political transition.

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