REFILE-UPDATE 2-EU cuts Syria sanctions term to possibly help rebels

Wed Nov 28, 2012 2:21pm EST

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LONDON/BRUSSELS Nov 28 (Reuters) - The European Union will review sanctions on Syria every three months instead of every year to make it easier in future to equip rebels fighting to depose President Bashar al-Assad, EU diplomats said on Wednesday.

The decision shows how the recent formation of a united Syrian opposition has galvanised overseas support for the rebels.

EU sanctions on Syria include visa bans and asset freezes on individuals and businesses connected to Assad's government, a ban on oil imports from Syria, and an embargo on the supply of arms to the country, imposed to prevent the flow of weapons to Assad's forces.

The current sanctions package is scheduled to expire on Dec. 1 and was expected to be extended for a year. But following a British push, they will now be renewed for three months instead.

"This sends a strong message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that all options remain on the table and makes clear the need for real change," a British Foreign Office spokeswoman said.

The shorter review period would "allow the EU to look at amendments to the embargo to possibly allow the supply of forms of non-lethal training and equipment to the Syrian rebels, such as body armour", she said.

France was the first EU country to recognise the new opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, after its formation on Nov. 11. On Nov. 15, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius suggested lifting the arms embargo to allow the supply of arms to rebels.

When EU foreign ministers last met in Brussels, on Nov. 19, the French stance was considered premature by other ministers. The European Union declared then that it considered the coalition to be "legitimate representatives" of the Syrian people, but stopped short of full recognition.

But the following day, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced formal recognition of the group.

On Wednesday, ambassadors from the 27 EU member states decided to review the whole package of sanctions every three months. Their decision is scheduled to be finalised on Thursday during a meeting of EU trade ministers, one diplomat said.

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