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.
In London, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also urged Assad to halt the violence against demonstrators seeking reforms, saying that nearly 1,000 people had been killed.
“This cruelty must end and the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people must be honoured,” Clinton told a news conference with her British counterpart William Hague.
“Stop the killings, the beatings, the arrests, release all political prisoners and detainees. Begin to respond to the demands that are upon you for a process of credible and inclusive democratic change,” she said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said the EU sanctions on Assad would hurt European interests as much as those of Syria.
“I say this measure, just as it will harm Syria’s interests, it will harm Europe’s interest. And Syria won’t remain silent about this measure,” he told Syrian television in an interview.
An official source earlier said the sanctions were an attempt to destabilise Syria, and “will not sway it from its national and patriotic course no matter the cost (in terms)...” according to the state news agency SANA.
The EU action 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 demonstrators.
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 the 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.
German 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.
Clinton’s estimate of the number of people killed in the violent suppression of popular protests in Syria was well above the latest figure of more than 800 civilians issued by human rights groups.
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, 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.
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 Syria to grant access to a U.N. rights mission and 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 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 for new bilateral cooperation programmes with Syria and would consider suspension of further assistance.
Additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach in Brussels, Yara Bayoumy in Beirut, Stafano Ambrogi in London; editing by Tim Pearce