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EU renews sanctions on Syria, debates lifting arms embargo


European Union governments agreed on Monday to renew sanctions against Syria for three months but said they would amend an arms embargo to provide more non-lethal support and technical assistance to protect civilians.

The decision, taken at an EU foreign ministers' meeting, was a compromise after weeks of disagreement between Britain, which was pushing for an easing of the arms embargo to help rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, and a number of other EU countries opposed to letting more weapons into the country.

"Technical assistance and protection of civilians will be easier," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said after the meeting in Brussels. He gave no details of what new support would be allowed in practice.

Many EU governments are concerned any easing of the arms embargo would only inflame the Syrian conflict, and it would be difficult to ensure any equipment reaches the right people.

"There is no shortage of arms in Syria," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said before the meeting.

Several scenarios were under consideration during Monday's discussions, EU officials said, including a full lifting of the arms ban for shipments to opposition groups.

The United Kingdom faced resistance from Germany, Sweden and even the EU's foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, a British baroness who represents London on the European Commission.

"Delivering arms might bring about a new military balance on the ground," said an internal paper on the matter drafted for the member states by Ashton's service.

"But it could also fuel further militarization of the conflict, increase risks of dissemination among extremist groups and of arms proliferation in a post-Assad Syria," said the paper, which was obtained by AFP.

According to UN estimates, some 70,000 people have died since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in March 2013

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar, AFP)

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