Austria says EU nations at talks in Brussels have failed to agree on whether to extend sanctions on Syria, including a ban on arms. US Senator John McCain, an advocate for arming, has slipped into Syria to meet rebels.
Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger of Austria, which opposes arms deliveries to Syria rebels, said late on Monday that EU diplomats had failed to reach a common position on its sanctions regime for Syria, including an arms ban.
At Monday's talks Britain and France had pushed for European governments to be allowed to deliver arms. Austria and other EU members oppose such moves.
Spindelegger (pictured right) said he still held out for a last minute reversal at a night-time resumption of the Brussels talks, but as it stood the EU's sanctions would fall away next Saturday, June 1.
"I regret that after long talks it was not possible to find a compromise with the UK and France," Spindelegger told reporters. "We have no consensus, which means the sanctions regime will not be continued." Individual EU nations would then decide for or against delivery, he added.
Other diplomats reject Austrian assessment
But, other EU diplomats disputed the Austrian version of events, saying talks would resume late on Monday evening and there was still a chance of salvaging an agreement.
"Nothing has failed. Germany and the Netherlands will push very hard to find an acceptable compromise for everybody," said a Dutch diplomat quoted by the news agency Reuters.
A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said discussions in the late evening would address the "next steps," and a German diplomat said declaring talks over was premature.
EU sanctions on Syria include asset freezes and travel bans on Assad and senior Syrian officials as well as the arms embargo.
McCain visits rebels via Turkey
The Austrian assessment coincided with reports that US Republican Senator John McCain, a former presidential candidate, entered Syria via Turkey and met with rebels during a brief visit on Monday.
Spokespersons for McCain declined to give details about his visit. It came a week after a US Senate panel voted to send weapons to forces fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The administration of US President Barack Obama has boost humanitarian aid, but it has stopped short of providing lethal assistance to Syrian rebels.
Battles rage inside Syria
On Monday, heavy fighting raged further around the strategic eastern Syrian border town of Qusair and in eastern suburbs of the capital Damascus.
Opposition activists quoted by Reuters said Syrian troops backed by Lebanon-based Hezbollah fighters were pressing an assault on rebel-held Qusair.
In Paris on Monday meetings took place to persuade Syria's fractured opposition to take part in an international peace conference in Geneva next month as proposed jointly by the US and Russia.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon voiced "deep concern" at Hezbollah's admitted combat role, saying this raised the risk of the Syrian conflict spilling into Lebanon. He said the proposed Geneva conference should be held "as soon as possible."
ipj/hc (Reuters, AP, dpa)