EU to look at new Syria sanctions this week

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The EU is to look at fresh sanctions this week against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime after already honing in on his inner circle, EU diplomacy chief Catherine Ashton said Wednesday.

Asked by members of the European Parliament to explain why Assad's name was not on a list of 13 Syrian officials hit by European Union sanctions, Ashton said "we started with 13 people who were directly involved" in cracking down on protests.

"We'll look at it again this week," she added.

"I assure you that my intention is to put the maximum political pressure that we can on Syria."

The 27-state EU on Tuesday issued a range of sanctions including an arms embargo along with a travel ban and assets freeze targeting Assad's brother, four of his cousins and others in his inner circle.

Ashton had warned the Syrian leader that he could be next.

She faced a barrage of hard questions from Euro-MPs in the parliament over why the European Union had spared Assad.

"Who in Europe is against putting Assad on the list? Which are the countries opposed to the EU taking the only decision possible? Tell us!" said Greens leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

"There will be a solution in Syria only once Assad has quit office in Syria, so it's clear that Assad and his entire family must be put on the list not tomorrow, but today," he added.

Ashton said there had been "lots of debate" among the 27 states and that there were "lots of different views" but that she could not give the MEPs a list of countries for or against including Assad on the sanctions.

Former Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt, of the liberal-democrat group, said "Let's be honest, Syria is an Arab Tiananmen," with Assad "the world's most brutal dictator."

In a statement issued this week as the EU sanctions took effect, Ashton had said the measures aimed to achieve an immediate change of policy, ending the cycle of violence and swiftly introducing "genuine and comprehensive political reform."

"Failing that, the EU will consider extending the restrictive measures in light of the developments, including at the highest level of leadership," she said.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had warned Syria it would face stronger EU action if the brutality does not end.

"The sanctions decided are a first step," he said. "If Damascus continues its crackdown, we will step up the pressure."

For almost two months, near-daily protests have railed against Assad's regime, while troops and security forces have repressed the uprising brutally.

Between 600 and 700 people have been killed and at least 8,000 arrested since the start of the protest movement in mid-March, rights groups say. But six prominent opposition figures were freed Monday and Tuesday.

Diplomats told AFP that as the human rights picture blackened by the day in Syria, Britain, France and Germany had wanted a swift and strong response from their partners.

But southern states -- notably Cyprus, Portugal, Greece and even Italy, with traditionally stronger ties with Damascus -- have been reticent to target Assad.

Estonia for its part has been concerned for seven of its nationals kidnapped in Syria's neighbour Lebanon, and possibly now on the Syrian side of the border.

© 2011 AFP

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