EU ministers reject arming Syrian rebels

European Union foreign ministers announced Monday that they were keeping current sanctions against Syria in place for three months, rejecting attempts to alter an embargo on the country so that arms could be funneled to rebels fighting President Bashar Assad.

However, in an apparent nod to the U.K, which had argued that the rebels should be exempted from the embargo, the ministers adopted a non-specific amendment "so as to provide greater non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians."

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that the meaning of that would be defined in meetings among the representatives of member countries to the union. She denied to reporters that the wording was a political fudge.

Still, British Foreign Secretary William Hague appeared to claim victory, saying many countries had not even wanted to discuss changing the embargo at a meeting in November.

"Most states were opposed to any amendment of the embargo and today we have amended it in a very important way, in a couple of very important ways," Hague said.

He added that further amendments could be made three months from now, an indication that Britain might continue its push to arm the rebels.

"We will have to have that debate at the time, and I think that will depend on whether any political progress is now made in Syria and depend on the continued loss of life which continues on an appalling and unacceptable scale," Hague said.

Several EU foreign ministers said, in strong terms, that they opposed sending any more arms into the ravaged country.

That view was supported Monday by a new report by a U.N.-appointed panel that said Syria's civil war is becoming increasingly sectarian and the behavior of both sides is growing more and more radicalized. The report urged the international community to curb the supply of weapons and anti-government forces to part with foreign fighters.

A number of ministers said they were placing their hopes on the mediation efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria.

"There is no shortage of arms in Syria," Luxembourgish Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said. "With more arms, there are more killed, more atrocities."

The U.N. says nearly 70,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict since the revolt against Assad began in March 2011.

Despite the appalling violence, diplomatic efforts continue. Mouaz al-Khatib, the president of the opposition coalition, has said he would negotiate with representatives of Syria's governing party - though not with Assad or members of his security services.

Brahimi, the international envoy, says that offer "challenges the Syrian government to fulfill its often-repeated assertion that it is ready for dialogue and a peaceful settlement."

The report released in Geneva on Monday by the U.N.-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria made for alarming reading.

Discussing events since July, it said human rights abuses by anti-government groups did not "reach the intensity and scale of those committed by government forces and affiliated militia." But it said rebels have continued to endanger civilians by placing military targets in civilian areas.

The commission, set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council, hasn't been able to enter the country and said that "significantly limited" its ability to investigate all alleged abuses - particularly those committed by armed anti-government groups. The report was based on 445 interviews with victims and witnesses.

"The war has become colored by sectarianism, permeated by opportunistic criminality and aggravated by the presence of foreign fighters and extremist groups," the panel said.

It said the number of foreigners fighting in the conflict has increased but still accounts for "a small proportion" of anti-government groups - though it remains hard to assess with accuracy their numbers.

Still "their expertise and experience in matter of IEDs and insurgency warfare have brought a substantial contribution to the opposition's tactical effectiveness," the report said. It added that foreign fighters appear to come from countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, "many from Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt."

It urged anti-Assad groups to "detach themselves from the foreign fighters, particularly extreme elements that fail to comply with international human rights and humanitarian law."

The commission also found that the civil war "is becoming more militarized because of the proliferation of weapons and types of weapons used," with arms and ammunition smuggled across Syria's borders to anti-government groups on an increasingly regular basis.

It said government forces have increasingly used cluster munitions, but there was "no credible evidence" of either side using chemical weapons.

Government forces and allied militia committed murder, torture, rape and engaged in "enforced disappearances" among other violations of human rights and international law, the report found.

Anti-government groups have committed war crimes including murder, torture and hostage-taking, it said.

It accused both sides of using children in the conflict - with government-affiliated militia using under-18s in fighting and children under 15 participating in hostilities in armed opposition groups.

The panel also said it will submit a new, confidential list of Syrians suspected of committing crimes against humanity in the country's civil war to the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, next month.

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Moulson reported from Berlin. Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don-Melvin.

Enlargephoto

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, talks with Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Markoullis, prior to the start of the EU foreign ministers meeting, at the European Council building in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 18, 2013. European Union foreign ministers were set Monday for a showdown over the bloc's arms embargo on Syria, while tighter sanctions on North Korea were expected to get waved through. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)