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EU mulls contested call to lift Syria arms embargo

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

EU foreign ministers on Friday mulled a contested push by Britain and France to lift or amend a Syria arms embargo to help tip the balance in the country's more than two-year conflict.

Calls by France and Britain to lift the embargo when a wide package of European Union sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad's regime comes up for renewal at the end of May have sharply divided the 27-nation bloc.

Stepping into two days of talks between the bloc's foreign ministers, Germany's Guido Westerwelle said Berlin remained "very reluctant" about delivering weapons to the country.

"On one side you have to help and support people -- on the other side prevent that aggressive weapons come into the wrong hands," Westerwelle said, adding the Berlin had discussed the issue with London, Paris and Washington.

It was important to find "an agreed position", he said. "The more united we act the more influence we will have in the region."

Austria's Michael Spindelegger, whose country states it has the support of the Czech Republic, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden, as well as UN chief Ban Ki-moon, reiterated his country's staunch opposition to a lifting of the embargo.

Vienna would likely have to remove almost 400 soldiers making up a third of the UN peace force in the disputed Golan Heights near Syria and Israel should the 27-nation bloc lift the arms ban, Spindelegger said.

"We don't need more weapons in Syria," he said. "We need a political solution."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said supplying the insurgents with arms would "enable the Syrian resistance fighters to defend themselves, given of course that if the embargo is lifted the arms delivered must not fall into enemy hands".

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that with the situation deteriorating as the conflict goes into a third year, it was important to increase support to the opposition.

He said there was "an option" for both France and Britain to go it alone should they fail to win support from the partners.

"Our aim here is to see if we can achieve agreement within the EU, if not we can obviously act on our own," he said.

But he seemed to hold out an offer of compromise by saying that the embargo could either be lifted entirely or "seriously" amended.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130322/eu-mulls-contested-call-lift-syria-arms-embargo