Britain wants non-lethal support for rebels

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iol pic wld syria ~fighters REUTERS Free Syrian Army fighters gather after they said they fought and defeated government troops from the town of Ras al-Ain, near the province of Hasaka, 600km from Damascus.

London - 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, the Foreign Office said on Thursday.

A Foreign Office official said the increased “practical support” that Britain envisaged would be training and 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 Assad's forces.

European foreign ministers are meeting 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 one year to make it easier to supply the rebels.

“Having successfully amended the EU arms embargo (and sanctions package) 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 in a statement.

Western powers have been wary of supplying weapons to Syria's rebels because the political and armed opposition to Assad has been fragmented. Opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition was formed only last month and further unity talks have been fraught.

However, the Foreign Office on Thursday hailed the coalition's appointment of a representative to Britain, Walid Saffour, as a “sign of progress”. In Turkey, Syrian rebels are trying to restructure to present a unified force.

In the absence of unity, Western powers fear arming the rebels may stoke violence between disparate groups and worry that weapons could fall into the hands of radical Islamists.

An estimated 40,000 people have been killed since an Arab Spring-inspired uprising against Assad's rule in March last year turned into an armed rebellion in response to government crackdowns. - Reuters

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