LONDON (AP) — Britain's government offered 5 million pounds (US$7.8 million) to Syria's rebel forces Friday to pay for communications equipment and medical supplies in an effort to bolster ties to the country's opposition.
Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted that the U.K. would not supply any weapons, but confirmed the funds would pay for items including satellite phones, power generators and medical kits. He said diplomats would also intensify contacts with the political wing of the Free Syrian Army as concern grows over the country's possible fate if President Bashar Assad's regime is deposed.
Assad's crackdown on popular uprising that began in March 2011 has evolved into a full-blown civil war in Syria. Human rights activists estimate at least 19,000 people have died in the conflict.
Britain, which had previously been cautious over direct talks with Syria's rebels, fears the country could become a haven for al-Qaida and other extremists if the international community fails to help them prepare for Assad's ouster, Hague said.
"This is not taking sides in a civil war," he wrote in an op-ed article for the Times of London published Friday. "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."
"If we do not work with those Syrians who want to see a democratic and open country, we leave a void to be exploited by al-Qaida and others with extremist agendas who wish to hijack the conflict," he added.
Hague said that discussions with Syria's opposition would stress that they must adhere to international standards on human rights "whatever horrors are perpetrated by the regime."
Britain had previously offered 1.4 million pounds (US$2.2 million) in non-lethal support to Syria's opposition, and about 27.5 million pounds (US$43 million) in humanitarian aid.
Hague said in his op-ed that he was using the spotlight focused on London during the Olympics to draw attention to international divisions over the response to Syria.
Russia and China have vetoed attempts to pass tough U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at Assad's regime. Last week, the U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, announced his resignation, following a frustrating six-month effort that failed to achieve even a temporary cease-fire.
"The people of Syria cannot wait while the wheels of diplomacy turn. Many more people will die without urgent help," Hague warned.