Middle East

Syria conflict: EU struggles over arms embargo

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Media captionEU members states are divided on lifting the arms embargo

EU foreign ministers are struggling to reach agreement over UK and French calls to ease sanctions so Syria rebels can be supplied with arms.

France and the UK argue that the move would push Damascus towards a political solution, but some EU states oppose it.

Sources say talks are continuing to find some form of compromise but Austria, which opposes the move, accused the UK of intransigence.

France said there was growing evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria.

Speaking at the EU meeting in Brussels, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the evidence needed "very detailed verification".

"We are consulting with our partners to examine what specific consequences to draw," he added.

He was speaking after the French newspaper Le Monde on Monday reported that rebel forces in the Damascus suburb of Jobar had been targeted by canisters of toxic gas since last month.

There has been increasing pressure on the international community to act since allegations emerged of chemical weapons being used in the conflict. Syria has denied using chemical weapons.

In other developments:

  • US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meeting in Paris, say they are committed to a transitional government in Syria chosen by mutual consent
  • One of the strongest advocates of US military aid for the Syrian opposition, Senator John McCain, has made a surprise visit to Syria for discussions with rebel leaders
  • An unofficial deadline for Syrian opposition to decide whether to join an international peace conference next month passes, as Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov meet. The opposition has been locked in talks in Istanbul, Turkey
  • Fighting in Syria continues around the strategic town of Qusair, a few miles from the Lebanese border, with a prominent Syrian female TV journalist, Yara Abbas, killed just outside the town

Compromise sought

EU foreign ministers paused their discussions just before 21:00 local time (19:00 GMT) but were set to resume.

The BBC's Matthew Price in Brussels said talks were taking longer than expected but were not likely to go on for more than a few hours, which suggested the ministers were working towards a compromise.

However, Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said he was concerned over the failure to reach a common position.

"I regret that after long talks it was not possible to find a compromise with the UK and France," he said.

Mr Spindelegger added he was hoping for a last-minute change of position that could salvage a deal.

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Media captionUK Foreign Secretary William Hague explained the government's position

Earlier, he said that a majority of countries were backing his position in favour of an extension of the embargo, which is due to lapse at the end of the week.

It seems the most likely outcome is a compromise which would involve extending it without amendment for a short period to see if the peace conference is successful.

There are fears that if the embargo is eased anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons given to rebel fighters considered "moderate" might end up in the hands of jihadist militants, including those from the al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.

But last week UK Foreign Secretary William Hague told British MPs that weapons would be supplied only "under carefully controlled circumstances" and with clear commitments from the opposition.

The EU embargo, first imposed in May 2011, applies to the rebels as much as the Syrian government.

But in February this year, foreign ministers agreed to enable any EU member state to provide non-lethal military equipment "for the protection of civilians" or for the opposition forces, "which the Union accepts as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people".

Unanimity is needed, and Mr Hague warned that if a deal could not be agreed, each member state would have to ensure it had its own sanctions.

Oxfam has warned of "devastating consequences" if the embargo ends.

"There are no easy answers when trying to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but sending more arms and ammunition clearly isn't one of them," the aid agency's head of arms control, Anna Macdonald, said in a statement on Thursday.