BRUSSELS - The European Union has decided to lift the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition while maintaining all other sanctions against President Bashar Assad's regime after June 1, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said late Monday.
The decision "sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime," Hague said after an all-day meeting that laid bare EU hesitation on feeding arms in a foreign conflict only months after it won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Hague insisted that Britain had "no immediate plans to send arms to Syria. It gives us flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate."
No other EU member appeared to have immediate plans to send arms to the rebels. "I have not detected any readiness from anyone at this time to contemplate that particular option," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.
Britain and France - the EU's biggest military powers - had been pushing the bloc to lift its embargo on delivery of weapons into Syria to help the embattled opposition.
The 27 EU nations agreed everything possible should be done to control any exports and make sure they do not fall into the hands of extremists or terrorists.
"Member states shall require adequate safeguards against misuse of authorizations (for export) granted," the joint EU text said.
Austria had been holding back a joint decision, insisting no arms should be sent abroad.
"The EU should hold the line. We are a peace movement and not a war movement," Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said.