France wants to review EU ban on arming Syria rebels

PARIS Thu Nov 15, 2012 4:53pm IST

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PARIS (Reuters) - France will discuss supplying arms to Syrian opposition forces with its European partners in the coming weeks now that an opposition coalition has been established, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday.

France is wary of militarising the 20-month-old conflict, but is also reluctant to leave areas under opposition control unprotected against bomb attacks, Fabius told RTL radio.

"At the moment there is an embargo on arms, so no weapons are being delivered from Europe. The question will undoubtedly be raised for defensive arms but it's something we can only do in coordination with the rest of Europe," Fabius said.

He said Paris was talking to Moscow and United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi over a solution, as it waited for the Syrian coalition to form a provisional government in the weeks ahead that could open the door to supplying arms.

"We want to avoid going towards militarisation. On the other hand we must prevent liberated zones from being destroyed. We must find a fair balance," Fabius said.

A senior European Union official said ahead of a November 19 meeting of the bloc's foreign and defence ministers that there had to be unanimity among member states for changes in sanctions to be applied.

"No such proposition will be examined yet. We are at the beginning of the process," the official said. He added that there were huge practical difficulties in selectively lifting the arms embargo.

Paris broke ranks with its Western allies on Tuesday by officially recognising Syria's new opposition coalition and said it would look at arming rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad's forces once a provisional government is formed.

France has thus far ruled out sending weapons, concerned they could get into the hands of radical Islamists, but the coalition is urging European states to allow it access to arms.

President Francois Hollande will meet leaders of the new opposition coalition in Paris on Saturday, including its chief Mouaz Alkhatib and George Sabra, head of the Syrian National Council which is now a minority player in the wider coalition.

France has been one of the harshest critics of Assad, who has vowed to fight to the death in a conflict that has killed an estimated 38,000 people and risks sucking in other countries. (Reporting by Catherine Bremer and John Irish in Paris and Sebastian Moffett in Brussels; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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