Chief of Syrian rebel army pleads for arms

The chief of staff of the rebel army pleaded with the international community Wednesday to supply arms and ammunition so the opposition can resist attacks by the regime of Syria's President Bashar Assad.

Gen. Salim Idris, head of the rebel's Supreme Military Council, said anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles are urgently needed to protect civilians.

Syria's uprising began in March 2011 with protests against Assad's authoritarian rule. When the government cracked down on demonstrators, the opposition took up arms and the conflict turned into a full-blown civil war. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed.

Idris, speaking in Brussels, complained that Russia and Iran are helping the Assad regime, while the West condemns Assad but does not supply the rebels with weapons. And the Syrian people, he said, are baffled.

"The people don't understand why the international community just looks at the news on their TVs," he said. "They just speak in the media and say, that is not good and the regime must stop and must go, Bashar must go. And they don't act."

There were signs Wednesday that some countries were beginning to take action. Britain announced it would provide armored vehicles, body armor and search-and-rescue equipment to the opposition - but would stop short of arming the country's rebels.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country was broadening its assistance to include "all forms of technical assistance to the Syrian National Coalition," including electricity repair and water purification equipment and testing equipment for chemical weapons.

Hague told lawmakers in the House of Commons that the measures are "a necessary, proportionate and lawful response to a situation of extreme humanitarian suffering."

But he said Britain is sticking to the current European Union sanctions against Syria, which include a blanket arms embargo that prevents weapons from reaching either the regime or the rebels.

Britain has pressed for the embargo to be loosened to allow more aid to the rebels. But other EU countries contend that, with an estimated 70,000 people having already died in the conflict, more weapons is the last thing Syria needs.

Idris, though, said he did not agree with the argument that more weapons meant more death. The regime, he said, is using heavy weapons against civilians, including long-distance artillery, surface-to-surface Scud missiles, and the still-potent air force.

"When we don't have enough weapons, when we don't have enough ammunition, the regime in Damascus still feels it is powerful, and it continues killing, and it continues to shell the villages and the cities," he said.

"We need weapons and ammunition to force the regime to stop killing and to stop destroying the country," he said. Given the necessary munitions, he said, the rebels could overthrow the Assad regime within a month. And he said the weapons would be tracked, kept out of the hands of extremists, and returned after the victory.

"If you give us 10 rifles, we'll give you back 10 rifles," he said.

Without an influx of weapons, the war could drag on and on, he said. "The country will be completely destroyed," he said.

Idris spent 35 years in the Syrian military. He said he defected after the Assad regime attacked his village, causing death and destruction.

Last month EU foreign ministers amended the sanctions to permit "greater non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians." Asked about the possibility of sending lethal aid, Hague said: "We have taken no decision to do that and we have no plan to do that." But, he added, "we can't rule it out."

Hague said the conflict in Syria "has reached catastrophic proportions."

The U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday that the number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country and are seeking assistance now exceeds 1 million.

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AP writer Jill Lawless reported from London. Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don-Melvin. Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless.

Enlargephoto

Chief of Staff of the Free Syrian Army Gen. Salim Idris addresses the media after he discussed the situation in Syria with the leader of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Guy Verhofstadt, right, at the European Parliament in Brussels, Wednesday March 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)