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France: No arms for Syrian opposition

LAST UPDATED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Mar 15, 2012

PARIS (AP) — France's foreign minister threw cold water Thursday on weapons requests by the Syrian rebel forces, saying arming the Syrian opposition could lead to catastrophic civil war.

The Syrian opposition is divided as it marks one year since their uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime, and diplomatic efforts to end fighting that has killed at least 7,500 people appear to be stalling. Rebel forces are asking for new weapons after defeats by government troops.

France, Syria's former colonial ruler, is backing the opposition against Assad and pushing for Assad's departure, but is wary of getting embroiled in a new conflict after its leading role in the NATO-led airstrikes on Libya.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe says arming the opposition could lead to "a catastrophe even larger than the one that exists today."

"The Syrian people are deeply divided, and if we give arms to a certain faction of the Syrian opposition, we would make a civil war among Christians, Alawites, Sunnis and Shiites," Juppe said on France-Culture radio Thursday.

After two significant defeats at the hands of Syrian government troops, the country's rebel forces are low on cash and running out of weapons.

"Send us money, we're desperate. Send us weapons," Ahmad Kassem, who coordinates military operations for the rebel Free Syrian Army, told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. "We don't need fighters. We have excess men who can fight, but we need weapons to protect our land and honor."

Many Syrian opposition members are in Paris but divisions have kept them from forming a single force that the international community is rallying behind.

Juppe also expressed frustration at Russia's continued support for Assad, while acknowledging that it's in part linked to Russia's anger at the international military campaign in Libya.

"Russia ... considers we went too far," Juppe said. "They are asking us ... to pay for the Libya operation."

Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Syria's Assad were Russian allies before uprisings last year started sweeping away entrenched Arab leaders.

Moscow, Syria's key source of weapons, says it's continuing to supply arms that could be used to fend off external threats — but not against protesters. Russia backs Assad's claim that the uprising is a foreign conspiracy and that weapons and militants have been brought into Syria from abroad.

Syrians first took to the streets in March last year to call for political reforms, and the protests spread as Assad's security forces violently cracked down. Some in the opposition have since taken up arms to fight.

Saudi Arabia said Thursday it's closing its embassy in Damascus, after several other countries did the same.

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