'No agreement' on arming of Syrian rebels by European Union

BRUSSELS (AFP) - European Union foreign ministers struggled to reach a compromise on Monday in a long-running row over whether to arm Syria's rebels when an embargo expires at the end of this week.

"There is a strong spirit of trying to find a European solution," said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, as ministers went into talks deeply divided over the issue.

But as the meeting continued hours later, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius regretted there was still "no agreement" though "it is very important that Europe take a united stand on this affair".

After Germany's Mr Guido Westerwelle warned that "it is not ruled out there won't be an agreement today", EU diplomats said that failing an agreement on Monday, further talks might be called by the end of the week.

At stake is a wide-ranging package of EU sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, including a blanket arms embargo on Syria that, failing agreement by all 27 nations to roll it over, will lapse on May 31 at midnight.

Mr Fabius said France favoured one of three compromise options set out by Ms Ashton's office - under which the EU would agree to supply arms to Syria's main opposition National Coalition, but only under certain conditions and according to a timeframe linked to political negotiations.

If agreed by all EU nations, this would "encourage European consensus, enable resistance fighters to obtain the arms they need, and control those arms", he added.

Mr Fabius also warned there were "mounting suspicions" that chemical weapons were being used in Syria. "We are consulting with our partners to examine what concrete consequences to draw," he added.

Mr Fabius was meeting later on Monday in Paris with his Russian and United States counterparts Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry over efforts to convene a Syria peace conference next month in Geneva.

"I definitely support the lifting of the arms embargo against the Syrian people," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was in Brussels for talks.

In Istanbul, Syria's opposition coalition also urged EU foreign ministers to lift the embargo.

"It's the moment of truth that we've been waiting for for months," said spokesman Khaled al-Saleh.

Britain and France, with some support from Italy and Spain, want the embargo lifted to help tilt the military balance on the ground in favour of the rebels and press Mr Assad to a political deal to end the more-than-two-year-old conflict that has reportedly claimed over 94,000 lives.

"It's important to show that we are prepared to amend our arms embargo so that the Assad regime gets a clear signal that it has to negotiate seriously," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

The 27-nation bloc has split in three over the Syria sanctions - those for lifting the embargo to arm the opposition, those against, and a third, larger group, concerned to maintain EU unity around a consensus even though some are very reluctant to ship arms to Syria.

Austria, Finland, the Czech Republic and Sweden fiercely oppose sending more weapons into an already bloody conflict and fear they might end up in the wrong hands.

Austria's Mr Michael Spindelegger, outspokenly critical in the last weeks of Britain and France, suggested "maybe a compromise just to see what comes out of the Geneva conference".

There is a linkage to the Geneva conference in a possible compromise that suggests supplying arms to the rebels but only with a host of conditions and safeguards.

A document obtained by Agence France-Presse says this option, if agreed, would renew sanctions against the Assad regime - including asset freezes against his family and cronies - for another year, but agree on principle to provide weapons to the National Coalition.

But the actual delivery of arms would be postponed until a fresh political decision by all EU members is taken by August 1 "in light of the developments related to the US-Russia initiative". The supply of weapons would be subject to strict safeguards and conditions, notably regarding the end-users, with possibly a list of authorised material.

"Quite a lot of arms are already going to the wrong hands," said Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans. "The parties to the conflict don't have a shortage of arms, frankly."