EU tightens screws on Syria
President Bashar al-Assad's regime faced fresh European Union sanctions targeting its oil exports Friday as ministers from the 27-nation bloc gathered in Poland to discuss the turmoil in Syria.
The sanctions "will go straight to the heart of the regime", said Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal.
The oil embargo, to take effect from Saturday, will deprive Assad's regime of a vital source of cash, as the EU buys 95 percent of Syria's crude oil -- though Syrian crude accounts for a mere 1.5 percent of thebloc's imports.
While further action to squeeze Damascus was not on the official agenda of the ministers' two-day talks, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton pledged there would be no let-up in efforts to press Assad to end the regime's relentless repression.
"We have been looking at what more we can do," Ashton said on arriving for the talks. "That is a conversation that keeps going on ... a conversation on what more can be done."
New sanctions could include a ban on investments in the oil sector, diplomats said.
"Right now it is crucial that we isolate the regime," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who has been under sharp pressure at home for favouring sanctions over military intervention in Libya.
Westerwelle insisted sanctions would work to force the Assad regime to start a dialogue with dissenters but that the EU needed to work hand-in-glove with regional partners, notably Turkey.
The EU on Friday also expanded a list of around 50 people -- including Assad himself -- targeted by an assets freeze and travel ban, adding four Syrian businessmen accused of bankrolling the regime, diplomats said.
And three firms, including a bank, were added to an existing blacklist of eight Syrian and Iranian firms. The identities of the new targets will be released Saturday in the EU's Official Journal.
"In view of the gravity of the situation in Syria, the (European) Council today further tightened the EU's sanctions against that country and imposed a ban on the import of Syrian oil to the EU," an EU statement said.
"The prohibition concerns purchase, import and transport of oil and other petroleum products from Syria. No financial or insurance services may be provided for such transactions."
Syrian crude oil exports, a key contributor to government revenue, are purchased mainly in the EU by Denmark, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Austria and Spain, in that order.
The move to tighten the screws on Assad's regime comes as major European powers ratchet up support for Syrian dissenters, with one diplomatic source saying some EU members "may be considering a Libya-style intervention".
France said Friday it planned to boost its contacts with the opposition in Syria to try and bring an end to the bloody crackdown on anti-regime protests.
"We will develop our contacts with the opposition," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said, without elaborating. "We will not let up on our efforts to bring an end to the repression and to secure a democratic dialogue."
In Spain, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero too urged the international community to support Syrians protesters following the success of UN-backed action in Libya.
"Libya is undergoing a historic moment which paves the way for the development of democracy", Zapatero said.
"This example should extend to other countries like Syria (where people are) fighting for freedom and to whom the international community should give its wholehearted backing," he said.
"The international community has shown that when it is united, that when the United Nations enforces the decisions taken by its Security Council, it can achieve its objectives in a few months after 42 years of the Kadhafi regime."
Assad's regime has defied Western sanctions over its deadly crackdown on dissent, blaming "armed terrorist gangs" for the violence.
The United Nations says that more than 2,200 people have been killed since the beginning of near-daily protests across the country against Assad's regime in mid-March.
© 2011 AFP