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France Ready to Arm Syrian Rebels

BRUSSELS -- France and Britain are pushing the European Union to lift its arms embargo on Syria as soon as possible so that they can send weapons to rebel fighters, French President Francois Hollande said Thursday.

The two countries are seeking military help for the rebels by the end of May or earlier if possible, but face Germany and other EU nations that have been skeptical about sending weapons, pointing to the risk of further escalation in a volatile region.

Hollande insisted that the rebels are fighting on an uneven battlefield because Russia and others are arming Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

`'We have to go further," Hollande said. `'For two years now, there is the clear willingness of Bashar Assad to use all means to hit out at his own people."

`'We cannot let a people be massacred like this," Hollande told reporters in Brussels, where he is attending an EU summit. "So already the British and French are in favor of lifting the embargo."

`'Why do we have to go further? Because there are threats, even fears, that chemical arms will be used," Hollande said, without elaborating.

The British government said that it is not ruling out any options to help the opposition.

A unanimous EU vote would be needed to lift the embargo before it is up for extension at the end of May. But if that doesn't happen, a French diplomat said France is leaning toward refusing to vote for the extension -- a position Britain has also hinted at -- which would spell its end.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, though, has her reservations and fears that might set off an arms race in the civil war.

`'Attention has to be paid that the opposing side won't be delivered with yet more arms then by countries that have a different position than Germany or the European Union nations regarding Assad," Merkel said.

`'That's a very complicated judgment call," she said.

Hollande insisted something had to move since there was a full stalemate in the search for a political solution.

`'All efforts to get a political transition have for the moment been ruined by Bashar Assad.

Britain said in a statement Thursday that the international effort for a political solution in Syria "has little chance of gathering momentum unless the regime feels compelled to come to the negotiating table. They need to feel that the balance on the ground has shifted against them."

Referring to the EU embargo, the statement said, "We are not prepared to rule out any options to bring an end to the suffering of millions of innocent Syrians."

Talk of arming the rebels comes as concerns have been raised about abuses by opposition fighters. Human rights monitors said in a report Thursday that Syrian rebels routinely kill captured soldiers and suspected regime informers. However, the report also said that abuses by the Assad's regime remain far more deadly, systematic and widespread.

Hollande also insisted that arms deliveries would not end up in the hands of fundamentalists.

`'I got all the guarantees on equipment deliveries and on their good end destination," he said.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, warned Wednesday that arming Syria's rebels would be a breach of international law. Moscow has been the main ally of Assad, shielding him from U.N. sanctions over the two-year conflict.

-- Elaine Ganley from Paris and Juergen Baetz from Brussels contributed to this story.

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