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Syria opposition voices frustration with international backers

Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (C) speaks with the media before a meeting with the Friends of Syria group in Istanbul April 20
Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (C) speaks with the media before a meeting with the Friends of Syria group in Istanbul April 20

By Mariam Karouny and Nick Tattersall

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Syrian opposition figures voiced frustration with their international backers on Saturday in the face of reluctance from some to supply the rebels with weapons and a call for them to distance themselves from extremist forces.

Speaking at a meeting of the Friends of Syria in Istanbul, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Germany was skeptical about supplying weapons to the rebels but said the subject should be discussed by the European Union.

One senior opposition figure said arms were already being sent from some countries but acknowledging this at the meeting would provide cover for countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to openly help the rebels.

"The world must know if they don't agree on our right to receive weapons this will be the last meeting the opposition attend. We will not attend any meetings after this," he told Reuters.

Washington plans to provide about $100 million in new non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition that could include for the first time battlefield support equipment such as body armor and night-vision goggles, a U.S. official said on Friday.

Secretary of State John Kerry was expected to announce the new aid package, which would mark a recalibration of U.S. policy toward Syrian rebel groups at Saturday's meeting. Fresh U.S. humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees is also likely.

The new assistance would stop short of supplying weapons to rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is also far less than what is sought by Syrian opposition leaders, U.S. allies Britain and France and some U.S. lawmakers.

The senior opposition official called on those reluctant to supply weapons to say so openly, which Westerwelle did on the sidelines of the meeting.

"We expect from the opposition that they clearly distance themselves in Syria from terrorist and extremist forces," he told reporters.

"We are skeptical as the German government when it comes to delivering weapons because we are concerned that weapons could fall into the wrong, namely extremist, hands, but it is a matter that must now be discussed in the European Union."

NEGOTIATION RULED OUT

Another senior opposition source rejected the idea of any foreign interference in the future of Syria.

"The international community cannot ask us for anything. What country we have after Assad is for us the Syrians to decide it is not for the international community," he said.

"After two years of this and the regime now using Scud, chemical weapons and getting help from Iran and Russia they come and tell us they want guarantees from us? How could they do this?" he added.

The 11-nation "core group" of the Friends of Syria, including the United States, European and Arab nations, has been deadlocked over how to remove Assad, whose security forces killed and arrested thousands of protesters who took to the streets to demand democratic reforms in March 2011.

Syria's opposition said earlier it hoped the Istanbul meeting would give teeth to a tacit agreement that arming rebel groups is the best way to end Assad's rule.

One Syrian rebel leader said on Saturday only force could end the country's two-year conflict and ruled out the possibility of any negotiation with Assad's administration other than over its exit.

"There is no solution with this regime through negotiation. This (conflict) will not be settled other than by force," Brigadier Selim Idris, head of a military command, told reporters on the sidelines of a conference in Istanbul.

"Maybe in its final stages, when the regime feels it has lost everything, it might want to negotiate for its exit."

More than 70,000 have been killed in the revolt and subsequent civil war. But a military stalemate has set in and much of Syria is left in ruins because of a divided and ineffective opposition, a lack of action by foreign allies and Assad's ability to rely on support from Russia and Iran.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Reporting by Nick Tattersall; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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