Last updated: 10 August, 2012

Britain giving Syrian rebels body armour

Britain will give Syrian rebels £5 million in assistance including body armour and communications equipment for their fight against President Bashar al-Assad, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday.

Hague said Britain would not provide weapons but would step up its contacts with opposition groups, especially the Free Syrian Army, to lay the ground for a political solution if Assad falls.

“The people of Syria cannot wait indefinitely, people are dying,” Hague told reporters.

“In the absence of diplomatic progress the UK will do much more. We will expand our support to the Syrian people and the Syrian political opposition with an extra £5 million ($7.82 million, 6.3 million euros) in non-lethal practical assistance.”

The aid was likely to include mobile phones, satellite phones and radios to warn civilians of regime assaults and “overcome the regime’s communications blockade and ensure their message gets to the outside world,” Hague said.

“I have also agreed in principle that our assistance should include lifesaving protective equipment for civilians to help those carrying out vital work in the crossfire, and this could for instance include body armour,” he said.

Britain would also supply medical equipment including paramedic trauma kits, surgical equipment, field dressings, antibiotics, painkillers and water purification kits, the foreign secretary said.

Hague said there were too many risks to provide weapons to the rebels at this stage, adding that it was difficult to know how they would be used and that there had been reports of atrocities by rebel forces.

Britain’s decision came after repeated refusals by Russia and China to back action against Syria by the United Nations Security Council, Hague said.

Separately Hague said in an article in The Times newspaper that he had instructed Britain’s ambassador-level representative to the Syrian opposition to meet “political elements of the Free Syria Army.”

Hague said Britain’s contacts with the often fractious Syrian rebel movement were aimed at helping them unite against Assad.

“This is not taking sides in a civil war. The risk of total disorder and a power vacuum is so great that we must build relationships now with those who may govern Syria in the future,” he said.

Hague said Britain would give the rebels a “tough message that they must observe human rights standards, whatever horrors are perpetrated by the regime”.

Activists say the conflict in Syria has claimed more than 21,000 lives.