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Britain has 'encouraging' talks with Syrian opposition
by Staff Writers
London (AFP) Nov 16, 2012

NATO chief worried about Syrian conflict spreading
Copenhagen (AFP) Nov 16, 2012 - NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Friday said he feared the Syrian conflict could spread to neighbouring countries, as Israel prepares to intensify its response to rocket attacks from Gaza.

"Syria might have an interest in a spillover of the conflict into other countries in the region to diffuse interest in the domestic conflict," Rasmussen told students at a university in Odense, Denmark, following a talk broadcast on the Internet.

Asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said that NATO "as an alliance (was) not involved" in the conflict.

"We support efforts by the international community to find a solution to the conflict, but right now the challenge is that there might be a spillover from the Syrian conflict to the other countries in the region," he said.

He added that he supported "a two-state solution, a free and independent and viable Palestinian state".

British Foreign Secretary William Hague indicated Friday he would decide within days whether to officially recognise the new Syrian opposition after "encouraging" talks with its leaders in London.

Hague said he had pressed Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib and his two deputies, who are on their first visit to a Western capital since a united Syrian opposition was formed last weekend, on the need to be inclusive and respect human rights.

"I'm encouraged by what I've heard and seen from the leaders of the coalition," he said after meeting the trio at the Foreign Office, adding that he would make a statement to parliament on the issue next week.

Earlier, Hague said in a BBC radio interview that Britain was re-examining a European Union embargo that prevents the arming of the Syrian opposition, but stressed that London was currently only offering non-lethal support.

France, Turkey and the Gulf states have so far granted official recognition to the new Syrian grouping, and Hague said Britain was inclined to follow suit.

"We would like to be able at an early stage to recognise them as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people," he told reporters.

"I wanted to meet them myself before the United Kingdom takes that step. We need their assurances about being inclusive of all communities, we need to see that they have genuine support within Syria."

Hague said he had stressed the importance of respecting minority rights, committing to a democratic future for Syria and taking a stand against the "abuse, violence and rape" committed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"I'm encouraged by their response to that ... and we'll continue to work on this over the next few days. I will make a further statement to our parliament about this next week," he said.

Hague's talks with Khatib and his deputies Riad Seif and Suhair al-Atassi was followed by a broader meeting involving Western and Gulf powers.

A statement issued after the meeting said the formation of the opposition coalition was an "important milestone towards a political transition in Syria" but urged more work.

"They agreed on the importance of the Coalition finalising its inclusive political structure and establishing an office, and publicly endorsing respect for human rights, the principles of international law, and full humanitarian access," it said.

Khatib then heads to Paris on Saturday for a meeting with French President Francois Hollande.

Britain is pushing for a new international approach to the conflict, in which more than 39,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad's regime erupted 20 months ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Last week, London announced it would begin direct talks with military figures in Syria's armed opposition groups as it sought a way out of the violence.

"We can't stand still. We can't just say we will leave things as they are in Syria because it is a gravely deteriorating situation. But how we respond has to be well-judged, well thought-through," Hague said Friday.

Syria will be on the agenda at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, with the arms embargo likely to be up for discussion.

France's foreign minister on Thursday raised the prospect of easing the EU embargo to allow rebels to have defensive weapons.

Hague said no decision had yet been made on this, but confirmed that the prospect of providing military support to the opposition had been discussed at a meeting of Britain's national security council on Thursday.

In a BBC radio interview shortly before Friday's talks, he said: "We will discuss with the opposition today giving them more non-lethal assistance, not arms but other practical assistance that we can send that helps save lives.

"Of course we will discuss with our European partners the future of the arms embargo. We've made no decision to change that so far."


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