Britain struggles in push to ease Syria arms embargo

BRUSSELS Thu Jan 31, 2013 1:53pm EST

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Britain's call to amend a European Union embargo on arms sales to Syria to help opponents of President Bashar al-Assad met opposition on Thursday when EU governments warned it could allow weapons to end up in the wrong hands.

A package of EU sanctions against Syria comes up for renewal at the start of March, and Britain, backed among others by France, has said EU rules should be eased to allow some equipment to be sent to the rebels.

But many EU capitals are reluctant to agree any changes, arguing they could open the way for more arms to reach Assad or Islamist groupings among the Syrian opposition.

At a meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers agreed to continue discussions on the issue in February to determine what types of equipment, particularly protective gear, can be provided under existing rules and to find a compromise.

"On the one hand we have to support moderate forces of the opposition," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said after the meeting. "On the other hand it's also about avoiding escalating tensions."

British officials are talking about permitting non-lethal gear such as body armour and night-vision goggles to be sent to the Syrian rebels rather than weapons, but other diplomats are concerned that easing the embargo could open the door to sending arms. France has ruled out sending arms to the rebels.

More than 60,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the war, the longest and deadliest of the revolts that began throughout the Arab world two years ago.

EU diplomats said several scenarios were under consideration in terms of what help could be offered to the rebels. One possibility would be to allow some shipments to areas under rebel control.

The EU could also draw up a list of permitted equipment, to differentiate between protective gear and weapons.

Further discussions are likely to be held during a summit of EU leaders next week in Brussels.

At their February meeting, EU foreign ministers will also meet U.N.-Arab League mediator for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.

(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak and Adrian Croft; Editing by Jason Webb)

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