France to push for arming Syria's opposition coalition

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The head of the coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib
Image caption,
The head of the coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, has called for diplomatic support

France's foreign minister has said he will discuss supplying arms to the Syrian opposition coalition with European partners.

The government plans to push for a relaxation of the EU arms embargo to Syria to enable "defensive arms" to reach opposition fighters.

France is the first Western power to recognise the coalition as the Syrian people's legitimate representative.

Coalition representatives are due to hold meetings in London and Paris.

Opposition and human rights activists estimate that more than 36,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule began in March 2011.

'Defensive arms'

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country was wary of pouring more weapons into the country but that there was a danger of leaving areas under opposition control open to attack from Syrian armed forces.

"For the moment, there is an embargo, so there are no arms being delivered from the European side. The issue... will no doubt be raised for defensive arms," Mr Fabius told France's RTL radio.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has been calling on European nations to recognise it as the country's transitional government, enabling it to buy weapons to assist its attempts to overthrow Mr Assad.

"The issue will be raised because the [opposition] coalition has asked us to do so," Mr Fabius said, adding that "this is something that we can only do in co-ordination with the Europeans".

He said that Paris was still talking to Moscow and the UN Special Envoy to the country, Lakhdar Brahimi, about a solution.

However, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Aleksandr Lukashevich said that providing foreign military aid to the Syrian opposition would "become [a] gross violation of international law", according to Russian news agency Interfax.

The BBC's Christian Fraser in Paris says that, throughout the conflict, the West has been reluctant to back the armed struggle but the mood music in both France and the UK has been changing this week.

European talks

The French president's office said Francois Hollande would meet the head of the Syrian opposition coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, in Paris on Saturday, a day after the Syrian opposition leaders are scheduled to meet British Foreign Secretary William Hague in London.

Image caption,
France says a lack of arms means that opposition-held areas become vulnerable

On Thursday, UK Prime Minister David Cameron was chairing a ministerial meeting to consider the military, humanitarian and diplomatic options for dealing with the violence and the growing refugee crisis in Syria.

Among the options are a no-fly zone, supplying anti-aircraft weapons to Syria's opposition and encouraging other countries in the region to give arms, the BBC understands.

The UK, along with the US, has signalled support for the coalition but stopped short of recognising it as a government-in-exile.

Meanwhile, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu told a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Djibouti that his country had recognised the Syrian opposition coalition and called on other nations to do the same, the BBC's James Reynolds reports.

Turkey is the first of Syria's neighbours to grant official recognition to the newly formed political group.

It has repeatedly called for the establishment of a safe zone inside northern Syria but the Syrian government has been unwilling to let this happen, our correspondent says.

Over the past week, the Syrian army has fired on rebel positions right up to the border.

The growing international diplomatic efforts come as Israel, engaged in an escalating conflict in the Gaza Strip, said that a stray bullet fired from Syria near an Israeli army outpost in the occupied Golan Heights was "an internal Syrian matter".

Israel has however shot back across the border twice this week after stray mortar bombs hit its side.