France, UK to arm Syrian rebels

Updated: 2013-03-15 07:18

By Agencies in Paris (China Daily)

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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday that Paris and London will arm the Syrian opposition even if the European Union refuses to give its unanimous agreement.

In an interview with the France Info radio station, Fabius said the countries will call on their European partners to speed up the removal of the Syrian arms embargo.

The arms embargo is part of a package of EU sanctions on Syria that currently roll over every three months, with the last extension unanimously agreed by the EU last month and which took effect on March 1. Without unanimous agreement to either renew or amend the ban in three months' time, the embargo lapses.

"The position that we have taken ... is to request the lifting of the arms embargo because it is one of the few remaining ways to move the political situation," the French foreign minister said.

If unanimous EU support for lifting the measure is lacking, the French and British governments will decide to deliver weapons, Fabius said, adding that France "is a sovereign nation".

Earlier decision

The EU was scheduled to review the embargo on arming the rebels late in May. Meanwhile, Fabius stressed the need to move up the meeting before the end of March.

"We have to go very fast. The Europeans are supposed to look at this question in several weeks, but we will ask with the British to bring forward that meeting," the French top diplomat said.

Fabius said the government of President Bashar al-Assad was receiving weapons from Iran and Russia, which gave it an edge over the opposition in the two-year conflict.

France and Britain will ask "the Europeans now to lift the embargo so that the resistance fighters have the possibility of defending themselves", he said.

"We cannot accept the current disequilibrium with Iran and Russia supplying arms to Assad on the one hand and the opposition unable to defend itself on the other," he said.

French officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Paris was considering providing the rebels with ground-to-air missiles to retaliate against airstrikes by government troops.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday said that "arming the opposition is in breach of international law".

Western powers have stepped up nonmilitary support for the rebels.

Britain is currently giving "nonlethal" support to the rebels, but its foreign and defense ministers have refused to rule out arming them.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Tuesday that Britain will consider ignoring an EU arms ban and supplying weapons to Syrian rebels if it will help topple Assad.

The EU last month amended its embargo to allow member nations to supply "nonlethal" equipment and training to the opposition but stopped short of lifting the embargo entirely.

More than 70,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, according to the United Nations, while the number of refugees has reached 1 million.