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Britain offers more aid to Syrian rebels

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times –

LONDON — Britain pledged Friday to give the Syrian opposition an additional $7.8 million in aid, calling it “the right thing to do” but insisting that the new assistance would not include weapons or other lethal equipment.

Instead, the aid would take the form of medical supplies, including antibiotics and surgical gear, and electronic items such as satellite phones and radio equipment to help “political activists overcome the regime’s communications blockade and ensure their message gets to the outside world,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

“This is assistance that will help save lives, not abandon all Syrians to the mercy of the regime,” Hague said. “It will help people caught up in a terrible conflict,” one that outside groups estimate has already claimed about 20,000 lives.

Hague took pains to stress that “our assistance does not include lethal assistance to the armed opposition,” although defensive items such as body armor for civilians could be provided.

Rebels outgunned by the security forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad have complained about the decision by Western countries to so far not offer arms to the opposition. In addition to its ground forces, the Syrian military has increasingly deployed attack helicopters and fighter jets in its effort to crush the rebellion — for example, in the battle now raging for control of the important city of Aleppo. The rebels have few means to counter the barrage from the air.

Before Friday’s announcement, Britain had already promised $2.2 million in non-lethal aid to the political opposition and $43 million in humanitarian assistance.

Hague said the extra $7.8 million would include training for human rights activists and for doctors in the collection of evidence of torture by the Assad regime.

He said Britain would continue to press for strong diplomatic action from the United Nations, despite repeated frustration over the refusal by Russia and China, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, to condemn the Syrian government crackdown.

“The people of Syria cannot wait indefinitely. People are dying and are often trapped without food and shelter,” Hague said. “They are at the mercy of a regime that is hunting down its opponents, an army that has turned its weapons against civilians, and militias that are committing barbaric crimes.”

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