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EU puts off rebel arms decision on Syria anniversary

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

As Syria's devastating conflict enters its third year, Britain and France are struggling to persuade their EU partners to ease the bloc's embargo and allow arms shipments to the rebels.

With several member states expressing strong opposition, EU leaders at a summit in Brussels on Friday put off further discussions on the future of the embargo until a meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers in Dublin next week.

EU President Herman Van Rompuy said that leaders had discussed easing it and "agreed to task our foreign ministers to assess the situation as a matter of priority" in Ireland.

On the diplomatic front, Arab countries put forward a resolution lamenting the spiralling violence in Syria and demanding that the regime cooperate with a UN probe into rights violations in the war-torn country.

The resolution -- submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva by Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates -- calls for UN investigators to be granted "immediate, full and unfettered access throughout the Syrian Arab Republic".

However frustration is mounting in London and Paris that diplomacy has failed to end the conflict and both capitals have voiced readiness to break ranks with their European partners and hand weapons to the Syrian rebels if the EU embargo is not lifted.

But there appeared little appetite among other European leaders for lifting the arms ban, many fearing that a flood of weapons into Syria will only escalate the bloodshed.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said Vienna was not prepared to lift the ban. "We think the delivery of arms does not contribute to a possible solution," he told reporters.

Under the rallying cry "Two years of sacrifice towards victory," Syrian protesters on Friday held anti-regime protests in several areas of the strife-torn country including Damascus, Aleppo in the north and Daraa in the south.

"Long Live Syria! Down with (President) Bashar al-Assad!" chanted demonstrators in the village of Harra in Daraa, the cradle of the revolt, activists said, adding that regime forces shelled the village.

The main opposition National Coalition pledged, on Friday's two-year anniversary of the start of the uprising, to "continue the struggle of those who sacrificed their lives for our vision".

The conflict erupted on March 15, 2011 when protesters inspired by uprisings in the Arab world took to the streets of cities and towns across Syria for unprecedented demonstrations to demand democratic change.

Despite the demonstrators being unarmed, peaceful and including many women and children, Assad's forces unleashed a brutal crackdown, opening fire on them and prompting an ever-growing number to take up arms.

Two years on, Syria is mired in a civil war that has cost at least 70,000 lives and forced a million people to flee abroad, with millions more missing or displaced, sparking an economic and humanitarian disaster.

Unable to enter Syria, UN officials have interviewed more than 1,500 refugees and exiles as a basis for its reports. It charges that the government forces, their allies as well as opposition forces have carried out war crimes in Syria.

It has repeatedly urged the deadlocked UN Security Council to refer the cases to the International Criminal Court.

-- Risk of regional 'explosion' --

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was "deplorable" that people were getting used to the fact that so many civilians were being killed each day, with a daily tally of between 100 and 200 dead.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said there was a real risk of a regional "explosion" if the conflict was allowed to drag on.

Rebels have seized large swathes of territory, but growing tensions between liberals and moderate Muslims on the one hand, and hardline Islamists on the other, have raised fears of a collapse into a sectarian bloodbath.

The National Coalition plans to meet in Istanbul next Tuesday and Wednesday to elect a prime minister for rebel-held areas of the country, a member said.

The Damascus government suspects neighbouring Jordan of opening its borders this month to weapons purchased by Saudi Arabia in Croatia for the rebels, a Syrian security source told AFP.

"We deplore the change of attitude of Jordan, which in the past 10 days has opened its borders and is allowing to cross over jihadists and Croatian weapons bought by Saudi Arabia," the source said.

The army on Friday resumed an assault on parts of the city of Homs infiltrated by the insurgents, including Baba Amr, the Old City and Khaldiyeh, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Troops also pounded south Damascus and nearby towns, the Britain-based watchdog said, adding that at least 151 people were killed across the country on Friday, including more than 20 civilians in the capital's province.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130315/eu-puts-rebel-arms-decision-syria-anniversary-2