PARIS French President Francois Hollande suggested for the first time on Thursday that Paris could arm Syrian rebels in a "controlled framework," given that they were now caught between the Syrian government on one side and radical Islamists on the other.
Noting that Russia was supplying arms to the Syrian government, Hollande, speaking in Mali, said France could provide arms to rebels, "but we will do it in a broader context with a number of countries and in a framework that can be controlled because we cannot accept that weapons could fall into the hands of jihadists that we have fought against here."
Hollande spoke at a news conference in Bamako where he was attending a ceremony to mark the swearing-in of the country's new president.
France, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's fiercest critics, has until now held back from arming the rebels despite the lifting of a European Union arms embargo in June, fearing that weapons could get into the Islamist hands.
Paris has so far provided non-lethal aid ranging from bullet-proof vests, night-vision goggles or communications equipment. Its main focus has been helping to structure the Free Syrian Army's leadership, providing training to rebels in Jordan as well as sharing intelligence.
"On delivering weapons we have always said that we want to control these supplies if we do them so that they do indeed go to the Free Syrian Army ... because they represent the Syrian National Coalition that we recognize as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and today they are caught between a hammer and an anvil," Hollande said.
"The hammer is the air strikes and actions of the Syrian regime and the anvil is radical Islam," he said.
Hollande has been U.S. President Barack Obama's closest ally on Syria since an August 21 chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus that Paris and Washington say Assad's government is responsible for.
France, which had been set to join U.S. strikes originally aimed at punishing Assad, fears the Syrian president may play for time by accepting a U.S.-Russian plan to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control.
Hollande has over the past week held meetings in Paris with senior Saudi Arabian and Qatari officials, two countries that already supply weapons to the rebels, and has vowed to increase military support to help change the balance of power on the ground.
The leader of the Free Syrian Army, Salim Idriss, who has called for the international community to provide his forces with heavy weapons, is due in the French capital next week to meet defense and intelligence officials.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Peter Cooney)