Spain backs sending defensive arms to Syria rebels

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Mouaz al-Khatib, former chief of the Syrian National Coalition, left, shakes hands with Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo on his arrival at the foreign ministry in Madrid, Spain Tuesday May 21, 2013. Syrian opposition groups meeting in Spain say they oppose all negotiation with President Bashar Assad's government unless it is aimed at his giving up of power. Some 80 opposition representatives from inside and outside the country concluded a two-day meeting Tuesday, saying Assad would neither form part of any transition government nor have any role in Syria's future. (AP Photo/Paul White)

MADRID (AP) — Spain favors a partial lifting of sanctions against Syria that would allow the delivery of "defense material" to rebel groups to help protect the population, its foreign minister said Tuesday.

To date, Spain has defended sending only non-lethal aid. Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo said Syrians should decide their own future, but he added that Spain was "in favor of authorizing delivery of defense material for people's protection," a stance he said was shared by many European Union partners.

Margallo said Spain's position was "changing with the evolution of circumstance on the ground."

A ministry official said the material could include arms, such as anti-aircraft batteries, but stressed that it would be for defense.

European Union foreign ministers are to meet May 27 to decide on whether to lift the sanctions, which expire June 1. Britain and France have also favored arming the rebels while Germany has been opposed.

Whether or not to arm Syrian rebels battling President Bashar Assad's forces has been a key point of debate in the international community — some nations fear the weapons will fall into the hands of anti-Western Islamic militants.

Margallo was speaking at a press conference with Syrian opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib, who was in Madrid to attend a two-day meeting of some 80 Syrian opposition representatives trying to unite the groups opposed to Assad's government.

Al-Khatib called on the international community to quit stalling and decide whether or not it will help bring an end to the Arab state's civil war.

"There is a delay on the community's behalf in supporting the Syrian people, and we ask ourselves, 'Why?' " said Mouaz al-Khatib, former chief of the Syrian National Coalition.

"We have suffered much butchery. Hundreds of innocent people have had their throats slit, children burned, women raped. This is a daily drama and the international community keeps stalling on making a decision. We believe they must be firm: Are they going to help us or not?"

In a statement concluding their meeting, the opposition groups ruled out any role for Assad in Syria's future or in any future transition government. Al-Khatib said they also opposed all negotiation with Assad unless it was about him giving up power.

He said a decision on whether the opposition groups would take part in a new Russia-U.S proposed conference on Syria's future in Geneva would be made within two weeks. The groups oppose Assad representatives taking part in the meeting.

The opposition leaders also condemned increased intervention in the Syrian conflict by neighboring Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group, which supports Assad.

More than 70,000 people have been killed and several million displaced since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war. The Syrian government and Hezbollah deny there is an uprising in Syria, portraying the war as a foreign-backed conspiracy driven by Israel and the U.S. and its gulf Arab allies.


Alicia Lopez of AP Television News contributed to this report.