EU opens door to train Syria rebels

The European Union on Thursday renewed wide-ranging sanctions against Syria's Bashar al-Assad but left the door open to providing technical assistance, including training, to the country's political opposition.

An amendment to the EU's sanctions, which will be renewed for three months from Friday, notably enables "the provision of technical assistance, brokering services and other services for the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces intended for the protection of civilians."

Other amendments authorise the supply of "non-lethal" military equipment and non-combat armoured vehicles to the opposition Coalition "intended for the protection of civilians."

A diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said the provision for technical assistance would for instance allow instructors from EU states "to offer training in the use of lethal equipment while not providing lethal equipment."

The amendments formalise a difficult deal reached by EU foreign ministers earlier this month to allow "non-lethal" aid and "technical assistance" to flow to the opposition.

After weeks of "divisive" talk on whether to arm Syria's rebels, the ministers on February 18 agreed to renew sanctions against Assad until the end of May that notably bar the supply of any lethal weaponry to the country -- regime or rebel.

The EU will "continue its work of assessing and reviewing, if necessary, the EU sanctions regime" as required, a statement said.

The bloc's wide-ranging measures against Syria also target scores of Assad cronies and regime-friendly firms with an assets freeze and visa ban, while banning oil imports and restricting trade and financial deals.

The United States said Thursday it would for the first time provide direct aid to rebel fighters battling Assad and $60 million in extra assistance to the country's political opposition.

After talks with European and Arab partners and the opposition in Rome, Secretary of State John Kerry said the US would provide aid to fighters in the form of food and medical assistance.