DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Britain supports signing an economic pact between Syria and the European Union despite its concerns about human rights violations by Damascus, a British official said on Tuesday.
Ivan Lewis, a deputy British Foreign Office minister, called for a "new beginning" with Syria and said Damascus should be encouraged to change policies, despite its alliance with Iran and support for the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah militant groups.
"(Britain) will try and play a positive role to help that happen, although some European countries still have concerns about elements of Syrian policy. We still hope we can overcome those concerns and that an agreement be signed," Lewis said after meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem.
"Britain has concerns (about human rights in Syria) and we have raised them with the Syrian government. We don't hide our concerns," Lewis told reporters.
The EU association agreement, which has been signed by several Arab countries, could help boost a Syrian economy that has been hit by drought and the global financial crisis.
Syria, which is under U.S. sanctions, has been ruled by the Baath Party since it took power in a 1963 coup, imposed emergency law that is still in force and banned any opposition.
The EU started negotiating a deal with Syria eight years ago but froze the talks after the 2005 assassination in Beirut of Rafik al-Hariri, a well-connected Lebanese parliamentarian and former prime minister.
A United Nations investigation has implicated Lebanese and Syrian security officials in the assassination. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied any involvement by Damascus.
The talks were re-activated last year after the EU, led by France, embarked on a rapprochement with Damascus and muted criticism of Syria's observance of human rights. But all 27 EU member countries have to give the go-ahead for a deal.
Diplomats in the Syrian capital said the Netherlands was still opposed to any signing because of Syria's human rights record. France and Britain cite a human rights clause in the agreement that allows for the issue to be raised with Damascus.
Syrian authorities have stepped up a campaign of arrests against dissidents, intellectuals and independent figures opposed to the Baath Party's monopoly.
Mohannad al-Hussani, a top lawyer who was in charge of defending high-profile political prisoners, was arrested last week and accused of weakening national morale, the same charge that landed his clients in jail for years.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for Hussani's release.
"It is Syria's repressive practices, not al-Hussani, that's weakening national sentiment," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.