* EU opens door to Syrian oil sales to Europe
* Hopes to provide financial support to Syrian rebels
* Opposition at least month away from ability to market oil
(Adds quotes from Ashton and Barroso, details)
By Justyna Pawlak and Adrian Croft
LUXEMBOURG, April 22 European Union governments
agreed on Monday to ease sanctions on Syria to allow purchases
of oil from the opposition, in the hope of throwing a financial
lifeline to rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
The decision, taken at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in
Luxembourg, will allow European importers to buy crude oil from
Syria, if authorised by an opposition umbrella grouping.
The sanctions were imposed in 2011 in response to Assad's
brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests. Two years later, the
conflict is largely a stalemate, and an estimated 70,000 people
EU officials said the easing of oil sanctions would be
followed by more aid and other support for the rebels, amid
mounting fears of a humanitarian disaster throughout the region.
"The humanitarian situation is extremely alarming, the
council (of ministers) today adopted a decision that will allow
the Syrian National Coalition to take advantage of the oil and
gas reserves under its control," the EU's foreign policy chief,
Catherine Ashton, told reporters.
The new rules will also allow European companies to resume
investment in Syrian oil infrastructure, provided the cash goes
to the rebels, and sell them equipment related to the sector.
Buying Syrian crude will be complicated because of security
concerns and battered infrastructure, but officials said more
financial help would be offered.
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A prominent member of the Syrian opposition said on Monday
it would take at least another month before the group could sell
crude, largely because it still does not have a provisional
government to oversee possible sales.
Activists say Islamist rebels also are clashing with
tribesmen in eastern Syria over the oil facilities in the power
vacuum left by the civil war.
The latest U.S. government data indicate oil production in
Syria was 153,000 barrels per day in October 2012, a nearly 60
percent decline from the start of the conflict in March 2011.
"It is important for us to send a signal that we are open to
helping in other ways, in all the ways possible, including ways
adding to the finances (of the opposition)," British Foreign
Secretary William Hague told reporters in Luxembourg.
In Brussels, the head of the EU's executive Commission, Jose
Manuel Barroso, said after a meeting with U.S. Secretary of
State John Kerry, visiting for a NATO meeting, that the EU would
give more humanitarian aid for Syria.
"The European Union is preparing a very comprehensive
package of support in the humanitarian field, because of the
refugees that we have seen increasing to unbearable numbers with
unbearable suffering," he said.
More than 4 million people are internally displaced in Syria
and nearly 1.4 million have sought refuge in neighbouring
The Syrian crisis risks unsettling Lebanon and causing a
humanitarian catastrophe in Europe's backyard, the EU's
humanitarian chief said on Monday, calling for a new drive to
help refugees and strained neighbouring states.
EU governments remain divided on other support for the
rebels, with Britain leading a contested push to ease the bloc's
embargo on sending arms to Syria.
(Editing by Alison Williams)