Syria opposition, rebels cautious on EU arms decision

Syria's opposition reacted cautiously on Tuesday to an EU decision ending an arms embargo on rebels, as fighting spilled over the border into Lebanon, where three soldiers were shot dead overnight.

Louay Safi, a spokesman for Syria's main opposition National Coalition, told AFP: "Definitely it is a positive step, but we are afraid it could be too little, too late.

"The Syrian people are disappointed. They thought that democracies care about those who seek democracy," Safi said on the sidelines of an opposition meeting in Istanbul that has been stalled by internal divisions.

"We need to provide protection for civilians, for the Syrian people. Weapons would be one element but also we would like to have a more serious position taken, a firm decision taken by the European Union."

The European Union agreed on Monday to lift the embargo, but no member state intends to send any weapons immediately for fear of endangering the prospects of a peace conference dubbed Geneva 2 that Russia and the United States are trying to organise as early as next month.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced the EU move, which leaves intact a far-reaching two-year package of sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Ahead of the decision Britain and France pushed for the move, while Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden were reticent about more arms pouring into a conflict that has already cost some 94,000 lives.

The final decision is up to each member nation whether to supply arms to the rebels.

To send arms is "against the principles" of Europe, which is a "community of peace", said Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, a longtime outspoken opponent of the move.

But a French official in Paris stressed that "this is a theoretical lifting of the embargo. In concrete terms, there will be no decision on any deliveries before August 1".

The delay is intended to allow peace efforts to proceed, but Syrian rebels on the ground criticised the delay.

"Why wait until August? Why wait another two months? So that the Syrian people continue to be subjected to genocide?" Qassem Saadeddine, spokesman for the joint command of the Free Syrian Army said to AFP by telephone.

"We need anti-aircraft rocket launchers and anti-tank missiles."

Russia, a staunch ally of Assad's regime, criticised the EU's decision.

"This directly harms the prospects of convening an international (peace) conference," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-TASS news agency.

"We are disappointed that decisions are being reached that not only fail to promote a political solution... but which contradict the policies conducted by the European Union itself."

He further accused the 27-nation bloc of setting "double standards" by lifting the embargo on the opposition but not on Assad's troops.

He also blamed the opposition for delaying peace efforts.

"The inability of the Syrian opposition" to name an "authoritative representative" who could speak on behalf of all Syrian opposition groups presented the "main obstacle" to conducting the peace conference, Ryabkov said.

On the ground, meanwhile, the conflict again spilled over the border into Lebanon.

Unknown gunmen killed three Lebanese soldiers near the frontier overnight, an official said on Tuesday, in the deadliest such attack since the start of the Syrian revolt more than two years ago.

"Three soldiers were killed by armed men while they were in a four-wheel drive vehicle east of Arsal," the security official told AFP, referring to a northeastern town where most residents support the uprising.

The majority Sunni Muslim village is a particular flashpoint, as refugees and fighters hostile to the Assad regime traverse the border.

On Monday, three mortar shells fired from Syria killed at least one woman near the eastern Lebanese town of Hermel, a bastion of the Hezbollah movement.

Hezbollah is allied with the Syrian regime and fighting alongside the army against rebels, including in the central Syrian town of Qusayr, where it has lost dozens of men.

The Syrian crisis has also sparked violence elsewhere in northern Lebanon. Fighting in the port city of Tripoli between Sunnis and Alawites, the sect to which Assad belongs, killed 31 people last week.