EU flounders as Syrian death toll mounts

European foreign ministers meeting in Dublin fail to agree over lifting the arms ban for rebels fighting the Assad regime

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The Independent Online

The death toll continued to mount in Syria yesterday, as foreign ministers from across Europe held talks in Dublin in an attempt to prevent further bloodshed.

A two-day summit at Dublin Castle saw EU foreign ministers fail to agree over whether or not to arm the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Britain and France are among those in favour of relaxing the arms ban currently in place, with the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, saying that there is "a very strong case" for lifting the embargo.

But he ran into opposition from various countries, including Ireland, Finland and Belgium. Introducing more guns would lead to more casualties, claimed the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister, Eamon Gilmore.

There are concerns that weapons could fall into the hands of jihadists, although the arms embargo was relaxed last month to allow the supply of non-lethal military equipment. Shipments of body armour and armoured cars were sent by Britain.

At the conclusion of the talks yesterday, Baroness Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, said: "The European Union is united on the need to find a political solution to end the trouble in Syria and to support the people in the future they aspire to."

She added: "We will continue reaching out to all concerned to try to give new momentum to such a political solution."

The EU is now considering the best way to help the Syrian rebels through economic and political support.

A European Union embargo remains in place, preventing the arming of the opposition to the Assad regime. But further discussions in the coming weeks will examine all options, according to Lady Ashton.

While politicians talked and arranged future meetings, a number of rebel fighters died in a battle which saw them take a key airbase in the southern Syrian province of Daraa after two weeks of fighting with loyalist troops.

"Opposition fighters loyal to Al-Nusra Front, Al-Yarmouk Brigade and other rebel groups seized the 38th division air defence base near the town of Saida, on the road linking Damascus to Amman, in the province of Daraa," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

At least seven rebels were killed in their final assault on the base, added the SOHR, which also documented the deaths of at least eight regime troops, including an officer.

The fighting in the south of the country, particularly in the provinces bordering Jordan and Israel, has increased sharply in the past week. Dozens of people, mostly opposition fighters, were killed in heavy clashes last week in the Quneitra region along the ceasefire line between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights, according to the SOHR.

The British-based group, which is in contact with a network of activists on the ground in Syria, claimed it had documented the deaths of 35 opposition fighters and that contact had been lost with more than 20 more believed to have died in the fighting. Dozens of others were wounded, it said.

The clashes are the latest in a two-year-old civil war in which 70,000 people have died so far, according to United Nations estimates.