EU fails to agree on sending arms to Syria rebels

Leaders at a European Union summit on Friday failed to agree on whether they should send arms to Syrian rebels on the second anniversary of the uprising that has escalated into a full-scale civil war.

Embargo that expires in May prohibits arms being sent to either side of Syrian conflict

The European Union may take additional action to help rebels overthrow the Assad regime. 2:27

Leaders at a European Union summit on Friday failed to agree on whether they should send arms to Syrian rebels on the second anniversary of the uprising that has escalated into a full-scale civil war.

An EU embargo prohibits any arms from being sent to Syria, whether to the rebels or to the Assad government. That embargo is scheduled to remain in effect until May, when it will either be renewed or allowed to expire.

France and Britain have argued that they should be able supply arms to the rebels, saying the Syrian government is receiving arms from Russia and Iran. France and Britain claim that with more weaponry, the rebels could defend themselves and the civilian population and members of the Assad government would see more clearly a need to negotiate a political settlement.

But other EU governments, including Germany, have resisted the move, fearing it will fuel violence in the region — especially if arms get into the hands of extremists. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Germany is ready to discuss the issue but warned of the risk that lifting the arms embargo for the rebels could lead to an escalation of the conflict.

On Friday, some anti-government groups called for stepped-up attacks to mark the anniversary of the uprising. 

Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the Supreme Military Council, called on Syrian soldiers to join the rebels in a "fight for freedom and democracy," and said: "Dear friends, the Free Syrian Army (fighters) will not give up."

Increased patrols, searches

A Damascus-based activist who identified himself as Abu Qais said government troops increased patrols and security searches in the country's capital. He spoke on condition his real name not be used for security concerns.

In neighbouring Lebanon, gunmen set fire to three fuel tankers with Syrian license plates to prevent them from crossing into Syria, the state-run National News Agency said.

France and Germany are divided over whether to send arms to rebels in Syria. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press)

The Lebanese news agency said the incident occurred in the northern city of Tripoli, and that the tankers were carrying fuel when they were stopped by the protesters and later set on fire. No casualties were reported.

In the past, protesters have closed roads to keep tankers from crossing into Syria, where there are severe gasoline and diesel shortages. They claim diesel exported to Syria is being used by regime tanks.

Many among Lebanon's Sunni Muslims have backed Syria's mainly Sunni rebel forces, in which extremists have become increasingly active. Lebanese Shia Muslims, including the militant Hezbollah group, have leaned toward Assad, whose tiny Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Separately, the Syrian Foreign Ministry complained in a letter sent to the Lebanese government on Thursday that armed groups have tried to infiltrate Syria from Lebanon repeatedly in the past 36 hours, triggering clashes with border guards.

Damascus said Syrian troops have exercised "utmost self-restraint" until now but warned that "this would not continue endlessly."

Overturned bus kills 8

Also on Friday, at least eight Syrians were killed and 29 were injured when the bus they were travelling in from Syria overturned in the mountains in central Lebanon, officials said. The bus was headed to the Lebanese capital, Beirut, when the accident occurred in the Kahhaleh region.

George Kettaneh, operations director for the Lebanese Red Cross, said the casualties included women and children. He said it is unclear why the bus overturned.

It was not immediately known whether the Syrians were refugees fleeing the violence at home. The bus had Syrian license plates from the northeastern Hassakeh province, which recently witnessed heavy clashes.

More than one million Syrians have fled the country's civil war to seek shelter in neighbouring countries. In Lebanon alone, the UN has registered more than 360,000 Syrian refugees.