The European Union today agreed new sanctions to target senior members of the Syrian regime, in the latest effort to step up pressure on president Bashar Assad to stop killing his own people.
The measures, agreed at a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels today, come after a British-backed effort to secure a resolution threatening international sanctions on Syria was thwarted by the vetoes of Russia and China at the UN Security Council last week.
The agreement came as the Damascus government warned that it would use chemical and biological weapons if attacked by foreign forces, in what amounted to its first admission that it possesses weapons of mass destruction.
However, foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi insisted unconventional weapons would not be used on rebels who have conducted a 16-month uprising against Assad's rule, at the cost of at least 19,000 lives.
"No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria," said Makdissi at a press conference broadcast on state TV.
"All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression."
Speaking in Brussels, Foreign Secretary William Hague said today's EU agreement sent "a clear message" to those around Assad that they will be held accountable for acts of violence against civilians.
"I welcome this 17th round of EU sanctions on Syria," said Mr Hague.
"Despite Russia and China's failure to support the Syrian people in the UN Security Council last week, the UK is continuing to lead efforts to intensify the pressure on this criminal regime.
"This latest package of sanctions shines a light on 26 more Syrian military and security officials who have been closely involved in the brutal repression of civilians. The EU has also frozen the assets of a further three entities closely linked to the Assad family to deprive the regime of funding that feeds the regime's killing machine.
"These new sanctions are a clear message to others close to the regime that if they continue to back Assad and commit acts of violence and torture against civilians, the international community will hold them accountable.
"We urge all members of the international community to implement similar sanctions on the Syrian regime and its close supporters to choke off the resources it needs to continue the killing. I therefore welcome the additional measures announced by members of the Friends of Syria Sanctions Working Group last week in Doha."
The charity War Child said in a report today that young Syrians are being deliberately murdered in execution-style killings, raped, abused, used as human shields and even enlisted against their will to fight.
War Child urged the UK Government to step up efforts to protect children caught up in the fighting, saying it believed between 500 and 1,300 children had been killed, while eight-year-olds were being enlisted as soldiers.
Girls and boys aged 12 have been sexually abused, more than 600 children have been placed in detention centres where torture is commonplace and 49 children were massacred in one incident, said the report.
Rob Williams, chief executive of War Child, which is providing emergency assistance to Syrian children refugees in Lebanon, said: "The Syrian conflict must now rank as one of the worst for the depth and scale of abuses against children.
"When adults go to war they have a legal duty to protect children yet neither side is protecting children in the areas they control.
"In fact, there are deliberate violations of thousands of innocent children including murder, rape and abduction. These actions will scar Syria for generations.
"The UK has consistently failed to achieve any kind of influence to curb these gross abuses. It must now ensure its diplomatic efforts directly target the exploitation and killing of children, and build a child-sensitive dimension into its work in the future."
International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said: "Any form of violence directed against children in Syria is shocking and abhorrent. Britain has worked to exert international pressure to bring an end to the violence, and we will continue to work to this end.
"Earlier this month, Britain doubled its humanitarian support to people inside Syria caught up in the violence, and refugees forced to flee to neighbouring countries. We have led the way in ensuring that emergency food supplies, medical support and other life-saving aid is reaching those who need it most, including tens of thousands of families, children and young people."