Talks on Syria accelerate, but opposition divided

STRIFE OVER SYRIA::The EU remains deeply divided over whether to arm the rebels, while the Syrian opposition is divided over particpating in peace talks

AFP, DAMASCUS

Tue, May 28, 2013 - Page 1

International efforts to end the conflict in Syria accelerated yesterday with key talks in Brussels and Paris, amid a push for a new peace conference despite growing divisions within the Syrian opposition.

On the ground, fighting continued for control of the rebel stronghold of Qusayr and state media reported a Syrian state television reporter shot dead covering the fighting.

US Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to meet his Russian and French counterparts in Paris to advance an initiative for an international conference on ending the more than two-year conflict.

Ahead of the Paris meeting, the 27 EU foreign ministers met in Brussels, with the bloc deeply divided over whether to arm the rebels.

Far-reaching EU sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, including a weapons embargo, expire on Friday.

Britain and France want the arms embargo maintained against al-Assad, but relaxed for the opposition.

In Istanbul, the key opposition Syrian National Coalition said the EU meeting was “the moment of truth.”

“People on the inside [in Syria] continue to ask for weapons to protect themselves,” Coalition spokesman Khaled al-Saleh said.

However, British-based charity Oxfam has warned that allowing more weapons into Syria “could have devastating consequences” and “fan the flames of the conflict.”

The opposition coalition talks in Turkey were in total disarray, with fractious discussions on their participation in the US-Russian peace initiative stalled.

There was squabbling over a vote early yesterday over expanding the opposition umbrella group, although the results formalized the entry into the Coalition of veteran dissident Michel Kilo.

The secular Kilo will bring in several women and members of Syria’s religious minorities, but critics said his entry increases Saudi control over the coalition.

Meanwhile, the French newspaper Le Monde reported yesterday that the Syrian army is using chemical weapons against rebels in the outskirts of Damascus, quoting two of its journalists who were there last month and this month.

In other developments, the US, Turkey and Qatar yesterday pressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva for an urgent debate on the civil war in Syria that could add to growing international pressure for holding accountable those responsible for killing thousands of civilians.

Syrian Ambassador Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui said the request violates principles of impartiality because it comes from nations that support the rebels battling the government troops.

Council president Remigiusz Henczel says the council will decide today whether to hold the debate tomorrow.

Additional reporting by AP