Controversial EU decision to arm Syrian rebels becomes official

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The EU on Friday formally modified its package of sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following this week’s controversial agreement to arm Syrian rebels in line with British and French demands.

A European Union statement said wide-ranging “restrictive measures against the Syrian regime” agreed over the last two years would be renewed for a year from Saturday until June 1, 2014.

But an embargo on the export of arms and equipment used for repression, which was part of the sanctions package, is “not featured in today's decision,” the statement added, in line with an agreement reached by the bloc’s 27 foreign ministers at long and tough talks on Monday.

The measures extended from Saturday “include a number of export and import bans, for example an oil embargo, as well as restrictions on investments, financial activity and the transport sector,” the statement said.

In addition, 179 people “associated with the violent repression in Syria” will continue to be subject to an asset freeze and travel ban.

The freeze will also continue to target 54 entities, including the Central Bank of Syria.

Despite opposition from many EU nations, the EU’s foreign ministers on Monday agreed to waive the arms embargo, leaving member states free from June 1 to decide at their own discretion whether to supply carefully vetted weapons to the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, to protect civilians.

There was a joint commitment to refrain from supplying any weapons “at this stage” for fear of endangering a US-Russian initiative for a peace conference in Geneva, with a review of this set “before August 1.”

Any delivery of weapons would be only “under certain strict conditions,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said Friday.

They would have to comply with an EU code of conduct on arms exports, be supplied only to the opposition coalition for the protection of civilians, and meet set criteria on end users and final destination of the deliveries, he said.

Some EU nations oppose sending more weapons to Syria on the grounds this will only serve to fan the flames of the conflict.

Mann also said “we hope the opposition will take part” in the peace conference.

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