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EU Ministers Debating Arms To Syrian Rebels

  • RFE/RL

Antigovernment rebels take position in a house during clashes with regime forces in the old city of Aleppo on May 22.

Antigovernment rebels take position in a house during clashes with regime forces in the old city of Aleppo on May 22.

European Union foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss the possibility of providing arms to Syrian rebels.

Britain and France hope to persuade fellow EU members to amend a current blanket arms embargo against Syria to allow arms shipments to rebels fighting forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

But EU countries like Austria, Finland, and the Czech Republic say they do not support sending more weapons into a 26-month-old conflict that has already killed tens of thousands of people.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague says arming the rebels will force Assad’s regime to take peace efforts seriously.

"There is a difference over what is appropriate now for the EU to do and our view [is that] it is important to show that we are prepared to amend our arms embargo so that the Assad regime gets a clear signal that it has to negotiate seriously," Hague said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator John McCain has traveled to Syria for talks with rebel leaders.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers confirmed that the Republican senator met with rebels in Syria on May 27 but declined to give any details.

"The Daily Beast" website, which first reported the news, said McCain entered the country from Turkey together with General Salim Idris, leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army.

The report said that in both Syria and Turkey, McCain and Idris met leaders of Free Syrian Army units who had traveled from around the country to see the U.S. senator.

The former Republican presidential candidate is a leading voice calling for a greater U.S. role in helping to end Syria's civil war.

McCain's visit comes amid reports of heavy fighting around the strategic Syrian border town of Qusayr and the capital, Damascus.

Opposition activists said Syrian troops backed by Lebanese Hizballah fighters were advancing in areas around Qusayr.

There also are renewed allegations of chemical weapons attacks being carried out by government forces.

France's "Le Monde" newspaper on May 27 published first-hand accounts of apparent chemical attacks by Assad's forces in April. Both sides in the conflict have accused each other of using chemical weapons.

Syria's conflict and its toll on civilians were high on the agenda at the opening of the UN Human Rights Council’s three-week session in Geneva on May 27.

Speaking at the meeting, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay expressed concern about reports “suggesting that hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured, and thousands may remain trapped, by indiscriminate shelling and aerial attacks by government forces in al-Qusayr.”

"Accounts gathered by our monitoring team suggest that armed groups have apparently used civilians as human shields, and that abductions are increasing," she said. "The accounts include allegations that certain opposition groups have forced young women and minor girls to marry combatants. And we continue to receive reports of antigovernment groups committing gruesome crimes such as torture and extrajudicial executions."

Pillay said the international community has a responsibility to protect Syrian civilians.

She urged the UN Security Council to take action to stop “appalling violations” of human rights in Syria, but she did not specify what kind of decision the council should take.

The United States, Turkey, and Qatar have called for the council this week to debate the deteriorating human rights situation in Syria, which has been gripped by civil conflict for more than two years.

With reporting by AFP, AP,, dpa, and Reuters