Asma Assad is banned from EU – but she can still fly into Britain

Home Office insists her UK passport means it cannot prevent the wife of Syria's president coming here

Beirut

Asma al-Assad, Syria's elegant British-born First Lady, was hit with European Union sanctions yesterday as the international community attempted to put a stranglehold on the regime's inner circle.

The 36-year-old former investment banker, who grew up in the leafy London suburb of Acton, joined President Bashar al-Assad's mother, sister, and sister-in-law to be placed on the blacklist which bans them from travelling to Europe and freezes any assets they may have there. The EU also rounded on two Syrian oil companies and eight further government ministers. "With this new listing we are striking at the heart of the Assad clan, sending out a loud and clear message to Mr Assad: he should step down," said Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal.

For Mrs Assad, pictured, it is a far-cry from the picture just over a year ago, when she was described in a gushing article by Vogue as a "rose in the desert". Known for her charity work, impeccable credentials and penchant for Chanel, the glamourous mother-of-three was the perfect public-relations asset for her husband's government as he attempted to present an image of a new Western-friendly Syria.

Over the last year, the First Lady had shrunk away from the spotlight since the uprising against her husband's rule, which has now claimed an estimated 8,000 lives. However, the recent release of a cache of emails, published by The Guardian and purporting to be from the personal accounts of the President and his wife, have brought her into focus once more. The revelation that she appeared to be more concerned about shopping for European furniture, jewellry and Christian Louboutin shoes than with the carnage raging outside the palace walls, drew anger.

Yesterday's sanctions, the 13th round imposed by the EU so far, are unlikely to have much affect on her shopping habits, with the leaked emails showing how her husband circumvented those around him by using a third-party address to download songs from iTunes. Assuming Mrs Assad has not given up her British citizenship, the travel ban also does not stop her visiting the UK, with the Home Office confirming she cannot be denied entry.

One Syrian opposition figure said the inclusion of women with no official position on the blacklist was pointless and may work as a propaganda tool for the government. "They will be able to say, look at how the West have hit at the women that have nothing to do with giving orders," he said. "How will it help to put Bashar al-Assad's mother on there? She must be 80 years old. They need to think harder about who they include and how it will be perceived."

The new censures, full details of which will be released today, came as thousands took to the streets across Syria following Friday prayers, chanting for the government to be ousted. Videos posted online showed protests from the Damascus district of Barzeh to Deraa in the south. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy fighting as the army clashed with defectors in the town of Azaz, near the Turkish border.

At least 22 people were killed, according to the Local Coordination Committees, largely in the besieged city of Homs.

As shells continued to rain down on Homs, the UN Human Rights Council condemned the "widespread, systematic and gross violations" by the Syrian government.

The EU-sponsored resolution passed despite China, Russia and Cuba voting it down, a blow to those who had hoped for increased unity after Russia and China joined the rest of the Security Council to approve a statement on Syria released on Wednesday. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is leading international efforts to stop the violence, is expected to travel to Moscow and Beijing this weekend for talks on the crisis.

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