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Hollande defends arming Syrian rebels

March 15, 2013 at 2:23 PM   |   Comments

BRUSSELS, March 15 (UPI) -- French President Francois Hollande defended his plan to supply arms to Syrian rebels following a meeting with EU leaders in Brussels, Belgium, Friday.

The European Union agreed to an arms embargo in 2011, but France and the United Kingdom are eager to see it lifted, hinting they could take unilateral action if EU leaders continue to support the embargo, the BBC reported.

At a news conference after the conference British Prime Minister David Cameron said there was a "good understanding that what is happening now isn't working."

Hollande said the rebels have given assurances the weapons would not fall into improper hands, adding it is "because we have been given those [guarantees] that we can envisage the lifting of the embargo. We have certainty on the use of these weapons."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday France and Britain might ignore the arms embargo if it is not scrapped soon.

The anti-government uprising in Syria, in which an estimated 70,000 have been killed and 1 million more have fled the country, entered its second year Friday. EU foreign ministers are expected to discuss the arms embargo at a March 22 meeting, but Cameron and Hollande agreed the world could not stand by and watch while massacres occur, the BBC said.

Several European countries are worried exported arms, destined for the rebels in Syria, could end up in the hands of Muslim radicals, Radio France Internationale said Friday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Thursday dropping the embargo could mean more weapons going to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime than to the opposition.

EU Parliament President Martin Schultz echoed Merkel's comments and criticized Britain and France for their potential defiance of the embargo, noting Merkel "is not completely wrong. Supplying arms to the opposition means more arms going to Assad from other countries."

Russia remains an ally of the Assad government and opposes arming the rebels, the BBC said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated his country's opposition Thursday, saying arming the opposition "is not an option."

The Local Coordination Committees, a Syrian opposition group, reported 132 people were killed in fighting across Syria Thursday, and six were killed by Friday morning.

Amnesty International said governments considering arming Syrian rebels should conduct a "rigorous human rights risk assessment" before doing so, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Amnesty International issued its caution Thursday as it released a report on abuses by both sides in the Syrian conflict.

Amnesty said safeguards should be established so arms deals could be voided if evidence indicates the weapons would be used to commit "serious human rights abuses."

The latest Amnesty reports indicate the Syrian government has "indiscriminately" bombed civilian neighborhoods, sometimes employing ballistic missiles and cluster bombs, and prisoners held by the government are "routinely subjected to torture, enforced disappearances or extrajudicial executions."

The human rights group said opposition fighters "are increasingly resorting to hostage-taking and to the torture and summary killing of soldiers, pro-government militias and civilians they've captured or abducted," Amnesty said.

In London, shadow Foreign Minister Douglas Alexander said Labor Party lawmakers need more questions answered before they could back arming rebels in their effort to oust Assad, the British newspaper The Guardian reported.

Alexander said Labor followers want to know how the British government could prevent British-supplied weapons from falling into the hands of al-Qaida followers, pointing to last week's kidnapping of 21 U.N. peacekeepers by an opposition group.

"There are fundamental questions that we need answered by the government before we would support that policy. One question is how do we guarantee where the weapons end up?" Alexander said. "Secondly, if the West was to choose now to arm the rebels, the EU to lift the arms embargo, why would that not simply lead to an increase in the supply of weapons [to the Assad regime] from Iran and from Russia?"

On March 15, 2011, the unrest began with nationwide protests following arrests in the southern city of Daraa.

Vigils around the world marked the anniversary this week.

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