EU tightens 'stranglehold' on Assad regime

Europe looks to new diplomatic and economic sanctions on Syria

The EU is to freeze the financial assets of up to 10 senior figures in President Bashar al-Assad's regime as part of a rapid escalation to tighten the "diplomatic and economic stranglehold" aimed at bringing an end to the bloodshed in Syria. Foreign ministers will tomorrow agree a fresh array of sanctions, including travel bans on high-profile members of Mr Assad's team, restraints on Syria's Central Bank, as well as restrictions on cargo flights and sales of gold and diamonds.

Ahead of the latest round of diplomacy, Syrian forces continued to attack their opponents. Up to 22 people were reported killed yesterday during clashes across the country. The killings came as officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) abandoned attempts to rescue people trapped by shelling in the Baba Amr district of Homs. Those awaiting evacuation include the British photographer Paul Conroy and French journalist Edith Bouvier who were wounded last week. The bodies of the journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, killed at the same time, also remain there.

A spokesman said last night that negotiations "yielded no concrete results" and talks would resume today. ICRC's Hicham Hassan said the Syrian Red Crescent was able to carry out evacuations elsewhere in Syria, including in other parts of Homs.

The escalation of sanctions follows the Friends of Syria meeting last Friday in Tunis which said countries would be "intensifying the pressure on the regime to end the violence immediately". A British diplomat said yesterday: "Working closely with our EU partners, we have secured a further substantial package of sanctions which will come into force the day after the Foreign Affairs Council meeting. The package includes freezing the assets of the Central Bank of Syria, the listing of additional senior individuals, as well as other sanctions that will be announced on Monday."

The Treasury has already moved to freeze the assets of 108 individuals linked to the regime, and 38 organisations, including oil firms, banks and manufacturers.

Tomorrow's meeting, in Brussels, will be chaired by Baroness Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, who has urged ministers to "expand our restrictive measures".

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has called for "a diplomatic and economic stranglehold on the Assad regime" to "choke off support for its campaign of terror". He urged non-EU countries similarly to step up actions. However, he has specifically ruled out arming the Syrian rebels. "We have in the EU an arms embargo on Syria, so of course we will observe that in all directions."

The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) also meets tomorrow to escalate plans for Baroness Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, to travel to Syria and potentially hold talks with Mr Assad aimed at ending the bloodshed.

Laura Dupuy Lasserre, the HRC president, has also accepted a request delivered by Qatar for an urgent debate on Syria to take place on Tuesday, "in light of the escalating grave human rights violations and the deteriorating humanitarian situation".

Last week, a report commissioned by the HRC claimed Syria had "manifestly failed" to protect its own people and drew up a list identifying "those responsible, with a view to ensuring that perpetrators of violations... are held accountable".

If Baroness Amos is blocked from visiting Syria, she is expected to travel to Jordan, Lebanon and other countries in the region, in hope of stepping up pressure from Syria's neighbours.

Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, yesterday accused Syria of seeking to crush its opposition before reforming. "To fight on the one hand with your people and then to claim that there is reform is contradictory. That kind of logic unfortunately renders any kind of reform meaningless," he said.

Syria will hold a referendum today on a new constitution. The charter would allow a bigger role for those opposed to Mr Assad's Baath Party, which has controlled Syria since a 1963 coup. But leaders of the uprising dismiss the move as "superficial".

China's official Xinhua News Agency yesterday accused the US and Europe of "harbouring hegemonistic ambitions" in Syria. Responding to criticism of Beijing in Tunis, China insisted its position on Syria was balanced and that "most of the Arab countries have begun to realise that the US and Europe are hiding a dagger behind a smile".

Both China and Russia boycotted the Tunis conference, which urged President Assad to end the violence immediately and allow humanitarian aid into areas hit by his crackdown.

The UN estimated in January that 5,400 people had died in the conflict. Now, activists say the death toll has reached more than 7,300.

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