BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other senior officials on Monday, raising pressure on his government to end weeks of violence against protesters.
EU foreign ministers agreed at a meeting in Brussels to expand restrictions against Syria by adding Assad and nine other senior members of the government to a list of those banned from travelling to the EU and subject to asset freezes.
The move follows a ban on 13 of Assad’s closest allies and an arms embargo, imposed earlier in May in response to a crackdown on pro-reform protests.
The 27 EU foreign ministers said in a statement they had “decided to further strengthen these restrictive measures by designating additional persons, including at the level of he highest leadership”.
“The EU is determined to take further measures without delay should the Syrian leadership choose not to change its current path,” they added.
Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said it was necessary to move against Syria’s top leaders.
“If someone represses his own people like that, responds to peaceful demonstrations with force, this can’t be left unanswered by the European Union,” he said.
Syrian security forces killed 11 people in the city of Homs on Saturday during a funeral for those killed in the latest crackdown on protesters demonstrating against Assad’s rule, witnesses said.
Human rights groups estimate that more than 800 civilians have been killed by security forces as they attempt to suppress more than two months of popular protests that have spread from southern Syria to towns across the country.
Syrian authorities have blamed most of the violence on armed groups backed by Islamists and foreign powers, who they say have killed more than 120 members of the security forces.
Monday’s decisions follows a heated debate among the EU’s 27 governments about the effectiveness of imposing sanctions on Assad, with some questioning whether the EU can be effective in cutting off his access to cash by imposing asset freezes.
But EU governments appeared to agree that an escalation of pressure on Assad was needed quickly.
Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said it was important to maintain pressure to ensure “fundamental change” in Syria.
He said imposing sanctions on Assad and his entourage was “a clear signal that we will not condone his policy of violence and repression”.
“He has to make the choice now,” he said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said extending sanctions to Assad was the right thing to do. “The repression in Syria continues and it is important to see the right to peaceful process and the release of political prisoners and taking the path of reform, not repression,” he said.
The United States extended sanctions to Assad and six senior officials last Wednesday to raise the pressure on his government to halt its crackdown on protesters.
The EU ministers said those responsible for violence against protesters should be held accountable and urged the Syrian leadership to grant access to a U.N. human rights mission and to humanitarian organisations.
“The EU is deeply concerned at continuing mass arrests, intimidations and instances of torture and calls for their immediate halt,” the statement said.
“The EU calls for the immediate release of all those arrested for their participation in peaceful protests, as well as of all political prisoners and human rights defenders.”
The ministers urged the Syrian authorities to respond to the demands of the people and launch an inclusive national dialogue and implement meaningful political reforms without delay through a concrete timetable.
The bloc said it had decided to suspend all preparations in relation to new bilateral cooperation programmes with Syria and would consider suspension of further assistance.
Additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach, editing by Rex Merrifield