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Photo Gallery: Two Years of Civil War

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Two Years of War EU Leaders Split Over Arming Syrian Rebels

The European Union has long prohibited all weapons exports to Syria, whether to rebels or government forces. But the embargo is up for renewal in May, and France is leading calls to let it expire and give rebels more fighting power against the Assad regime.

Division is emerging within the European Union over the question as to whether to provide weapons to rebels in Syria, as the bloc's leaders gathered in Brussels on Friday, with the two-year-old civil war among the items on the agenda.

France is leading the calls to lift the EU arms embargo on Syria and deliver weapons to the anti-government rebels. French President François Hollande told reporters at the close of the EU summit on Friday that rebels had guaranteed any weapons they receive would not fall into the wrong hands.

"In terms of delivering weapons ... to have the best answer the opposition must give all necessary guarantees," Hollande said. "It's because we have been given those that we can envisage the lifting of the embargo. We have the certainty on the use of these weapons."

Hollande had previously made statements indicating he would be willing to unilaterally break the embargo  and deliver weapons. France, supported by the United Kingdom, argues that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is already receiving weapons from Russia and Iran, and giving the rebels more fire power would help them defend themselves and the civilian population, while also increasing pressure on Assad's government to negotiate a political solution.

But despite promises from the Western-backed rebels that weapons would be secure, elements of Islamist extremism among their ranks  have raised fears that sending more arms to the country would complicate a post-Assad transition to democracy.

Germany Has 'Host of Reservations'

The EU has banned all weapons exports to Syria, whether to the rebels or government forces. The embargo is up for renewal in May, giving EU leaders a swiftly-approaching chance to let it expire. One EU diplomat told news agency Reuters that "nobody really is interested" in ending the embargo, and that "there is no prospect of change any time soon." Non-lethal military assistance is still permitted.

Officially, the primary topic on the agenda for Friday was EU-Russian relations. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said that EU's foreign ministers would address the option of arming Syrian rebels at their next meeting on March 22-23 in Dublin.

German Chanceller Angela Merkel said she had "a whole host of reservations" over ending the arms embargo, adding that her "opinion-making process is not yet complete." Her foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, sounded slightly more receptive to the idea on Thursday, saying "if important partners in the European Union now think the situation has changed and they think this makes it necessary to change the decisions on sanctions, we are of course prepared to discuss this in the EU immediately."

Austria, whose troops make up part of the UN peacekeeping force in the disputed Golan Heights, has come out against any weapons deliveries to Syrian rebels. Last week rebels briefly kidnapped 21 Filipino members of the UN force, raising concerns about the safety of the 1,000 troops in the region.

"One can never rule out whose hands more weapons will end up in, and that's why I am against this suggestion," Austrian Defense Minister Gerald Klug told public broadcaster ORF.

The UN estimates some 70,000 people have been killed in Syrian civil war, and more than one million have fled the country as refugees .

The EU summit in Brussels, which began on Thursday, fell on the two-year anniversary of the uprising in Syria. In March 2011, government troops arrested a group of teenagers who had drawn anti-Assad graffiti on a wall, setting off a series of protests in the southern city of Daraa.

acb -- with wire reports
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