BRUSSELS (AP) — EU ministers were deeply divided Monday over whether to ease sanctions against Syria to allow arms shipments to the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's regime. France added urgency to the debate by saying there were increasing signs that chemical weapons were being used in the conflict.
The European Union foreign ministers meeting Monday in Brussels were facing a deadline when the current arms embargo against Syria expires Friday. If no new deal is found, each nation can independently decide if they want to arm the rebels.
Britain was the most outspoken proponent of relaxing the arms embargo but faced strong opposition from EU members like Austria who feel that pouring more weapons into the war zone will only increase the deaths in Syria and tarnish the EU's reputation as a peace broker.
More than 70,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011. Assad has been using extensive firepower against lightly armed rebel factions.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Monday there were more indications than ever that gas warfare had become part of the Syrian civil war. France said it had been looking into such reports since early this month.
"(There are) are stronger and better substantiated indications of the local use of chemical arms. We have to check this and are doing this with our partners," Fabius said.
He did not specify which side was accused of using it.
EU foreign ministers remained bogged down in seeking ways to deal with the overall arms embargo. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said "the positions are far apart."
Fabius said he wanted a compromise "where we have a European consensus, where rebels can have necessary arms and where the arms can be controlled."
The EU nations have been steadfast opponents of Assad in the war and have steadily increased restrictive measures against his regime, including visa restrictions and economic sanctions. In February, the 27-nation bloc also amended the arms embargo to allow for non-lethal equipment and medicine to protect Syrian civilians. If not renewed, all those measures expire at the end of May.
EU nations were looking at a compromise to create more pressure on Assad by threatening a limited arming of the opposition in the coming months, an EU official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not allowed to discuss ongoing EU discussions on the record.
Meanwhile, Assad's government has agreed in principle to participate in peace talks in Geneva next month. The United States and Russia hope to bring together the Syrian government and opposition for direct talks, but the exact date, agenda and participants still remains unclear.
Washington has also been reluctant to provide rebels with more sophisticated weapons for fear they might end up in the hands of the radical Islamic factions, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that has been the most effective fighting force on the opposition side.
Several EU ministers said arming the opposition would create a more-level playing field that could force Assad into a negotiated settlement.
"It is important to show 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.
Austria argued that sending more weapons into the war zone would only acerbate an already horrific situation.
"We just received the Nobel Peace Prize and to now go in the direction of intentionally getting involved in a conflict with weapon deliveries, I think that is wrong," Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said.
But he also was not happy about just letting the sanctions against Syria expire.
"If there is no compromise, then there is no sanctions regime," said Spindelegger. "In my view that would be fatal, also for those who now absolutely want to deliver weapons."
Hague insisted, however, that Syria's moderate opposition needed to be boosted.
"Most of the world denies them the means to defend themselves, so that is creating extremism radicalizing people. We are reaching the limits of how long we can go on with that situation," Hague said.
Opposition fighters have complained from the outset of the 26-month of conflict when they captured large swathes of territory along Syria's northern border with Turkey they cannot hold it because of the Assad regime's superior firepower, which includes fighter jets and heavy artillery.
The rebels claim that strategic weapons such as the anti-aircraft missiles would speed up Assad's fall.
Heavier weapons that would enable the rebels to shoot down the regime's aircraft would also pave the way for the rebels' Western-backed political leadership to establish enclaves inside Syria and at least make an attempt to govern territories captured from the regime.
Despite the apparent incompatibility of views at Monday's meeting, diplomats still held out hope for a common stand sometime before the embargo expires.
"Disagreement in the EU, that would be the wrong signal," said Westerwelle. "The more cohesive Europe acts, the more influence we will have on overcoming the current violence in Syria."
In Geneva, the U.S., Turkey and Qatar persuaded the U.N.'s top human rights body to hold another urgent debate on the civil war in Syria, the first such session in more than a year, to hold accountable those responsible for killing thousands of civilians.
U.N. Human Rights Council President Remigiusz Henczel said the debate will be held on Wednesday, and officials said negotiations have already begun on a resolution focused on the violence in the Syrian town of Qusair, near Lebanon.
The council has passed nine previous resolutions on Syria seeking to bring an end to, and impose accountability for, the waves of killings, rapes, torture, shelling of civilians and other horrific abuses in the war.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk contributed from Beirut and John Heilprin from Geneva.