Britain bids to loosen embargo to aid rebels

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Britain will seek next week to amend an arms embargo on Syria to make it easier to help opponents of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

A Foreign Office official said the increased “practical support” would involve training and the supply of non-lethal equipment. Items such as body armour and night-vision goggles are currently caught up in a European arms embargo aimed at stemming supplies to Mr Assad’s forces.

Europe’s foreign ministers meet in Brussels on Monday. Last week EU diplomats said they had agreed to reduce the renewal period of a package of sanctions against Syria, including the arms embargo, to three months rather than a year to make it easier to supply the rebels.

“Having successfully amended the EU arms embargo by setting a three-month renewal period, we will make fresh arguments in support of amending the arms embargo ahead of the March 2013 deadline in a way that offers sufficient flexibility to increase practical support to the Syrian opposition,” Foreign Office Europe minister David Lidington said yesterday.

Western powers have been wary of supplying weapons to Syria’s rebels because opposition to Mr Assad has been fragmented. Umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition was formed only last month and further unity talks have been fraught. However, the Foreign Office hailed the coalition’s appointment of a representative to Britain, Walid Saffour, as a “sign of progress”.

In the absence of unity, western powers fear arming the rebels may stoke violence between disparate groups, including Islamist extremists.

An estimated 40,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Mr Assad’s rule began in March last year.