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Kerry, G8 ministers meet Syrian rebels in London

A Syrian rebel fighter runs across a street to avoid snipers in the Saladin district of  Aleppo on April 8, 2013
A Syrian rebel fighter runs across a street to avoid snipers in the Saladin district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 8, 2013. Syrian rebels will meet US Secretary of State John Kerry and G8 foreign ministers in London as the United States m

Syrian rebels meet US Secretary of State John Kerry and G8 foreign ministers in London on Wednesday as the United States mulls ways to step up support for outgunned opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.

The spiralling North Korean nuclear crisis and Iran's atomic ambitions will also be discussed at the meeting of foreign ministers, a prelude to the annual Group of Eight leaders' summit later this year in Northern Ireland.

But Syria is at the top of the agenda with Kerry also set to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in a bid to persuade Moscow, a key ally of Damascus, to help break the international stalemate on the conflict.

"The United States every single day thinks about what more we can do to help bring this horrible situation to an end," a senior US administration official said, asking not to be identified.

The aim was to "move to a transition government that reflects the legitimate desires of the people," the official said.

Kerry was to meet later with Syrian opposition prime minister Ghassan Hitto and other top coalition members on the sidelines of the G8 foreign ministers meeting, for talks hosted by British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Hitto and Syrian National Coalition vice presidents George Sabra and Soheir Atassi are expected to push their demands for weapons to help topple Assad.

The US and EU are currently providing non-lethal aid such as communications equipment, and are beginning to distribute food and medical supplies to the Free Syrian Army.

But many countries have refused to arm the opposition fearing the weapons could get into the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked militants in a complex and volatile conflict.

US Secretary of State John Kerry exits his aircraft as he arrives at Stansted Airport near London, on April 9, 2013
US Secretary of State John Kerry exits his government aircraft as he arrives at Stansted Airport near London, on April 9, 2013.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq on Tuesday claimed ownership of one of the key opposition forces fighting in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front.

The battle to oust Assad is now in its third year, with an estimated 70,000 people said to have been killed and millions forced to flee their homes.

The G8 foreign ministers would discuss the Syrian crisis at a dinner on Wednesday night, and were expected to issue "quite a strong statement" on Thursday at the end of their two-day meeting, the US official told reporters in London.

But the official admitted there had been "some vigorous discussion" about the statement, with some objections particularly from the Russian side, which remains a key ally of the Assad regime.

Hague said before the talks started on Wednesday that "top of the agenda will be dealing with Syria and the situation in Syria, which continues to get worse".

Previously, he said he had discussed the issue of arming the rebels with the three visiting Syrian opposition figures on Tuesday.

Britain and France would continue to push for the lifting of an EU arms embargo to Syria so they can arm the rebels, Hague added. The embargo is due to expire at the end of May but other EU nations are largely in favour of renewing it.

Syria's opposition umbrella group the National Coalition is recognised by the United States and many other Western and Arab countries as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

The Syrian opposition was formally granted an Arab League seat last month.

Iran, Syria's main ally, will also loom large at the G8 talks after nuclear negotiations between Tehran and world powers ended in deadlock at the weekend.

The tensions over North Korea would also be a key topic, with Wednesday being the point Pyongyang had previously said beyond which it could not guarantee the safety of foreign diplomats on the grounds that war may break out.

Hague meanwhile said his "personal priority" for the meeting was a new agreement to prevent sexual violence in conflicts.

The meeting of the top diplomats from the Group of Eight leading industrialised nations will also tackle Myanmar, Somalia and cyber-security.

The G8 groups Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Britain, which holds the rotating chairmanship of the group this year, will host a G8 leaders summit in Northern Ireland in June.

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