BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union nations remain divided on Monday whether to ease sanctions against Syria to allow for weapons shipments to rebels fighting the regime of Syria's President Bashar Assad.
Britain is the most outspoken proponent of relaxing the arms embargo but faces opposition from some members that feel more weapons would only increase the killings, Dutch Minister Frans Timmermans said,
"As we begin our meeting there are still different views," Timmermans said, heading into of the meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers.
Assad has been using extensive firepower against lightly armed rebel factions. More than 70,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad's regime erupted in March 2011. Meanwhile, both sides have agreed in principle to enter direct talks in Geneva next month.
Several nations say that arming the opposition would create a level playing field that would 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.
The date, agenda and list of participants for the conference remain unclear, and wide gaps persist about its objectives.
Austria was among the holdouts to keep the EU from providing weapons, arguing it would only acerbate an already horrific situation.
"We are not involved in conflicts by delivering arms to one side and we should stay as a peace community by not being involved in such a conflict," Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said.
"To turn and reverse our line would not help in the conflict," he said. Any decision would require unanimity among the 27 member states.
There are also fears that delivering weapons to the opposition would open the way for extremist groups and terrorists to get hold of weapons that could then be targeted against the EU.
Hague, however, said that standing still was no option and that the 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."