EU blacklists Syria's Assad for first time
(BRUSSELS) - Europe tightened the noose on President Bashar al-Assad Monday, imposing its first sanctions on the Syrian leader in a move Damascus said added "a black page to their record of colonialism".
Long reluctant to target the Syrian leader directly, the European Union decided to slap an assets freeze and travel ban on Assad, the latest in a string of measures against his regime as the US and Britain called for an end to the killing of anti-regime protesters.
Foreign ministers of the 27-member bloc also called for quick Middle East peace talks, strengthened sanctions on Iran and Libya, chided Yemen's leader for failing to sign a transition deal, and urged Bahrain to stick to reform.
After President Barack Obama's Middle East policy shift last week, as well as a recent inter-Palestinian peace deal, the EU ministers judged the time ripe for an "early meeting" of the diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East -- the European Union, Russia, United Nations and United States.
Obama's sea-change speech setting borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war as the basis of a future Palestinian state -- a long-held EU position -- set out "important elements contributing to the resumption of negotiations," the EU said.
"We want negotiations to resume as soon as possible," said Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. "This is what we have to do now. But I have to admit a window of opportunity is narrowing day after day."
"The Arab Spring," added German counterpart Guido Westerwelle, "has also opened a chance for the Middle East peace process. But inversely, the peace process must move forward to guarantee long-term success to the Arab Spring."
As Syrians buried their dead, with at least 900 people killed and thousands more arrested in pro-democracy protests, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Assad to "stop the killings and beatings and arrests."
The US and Britain, she said at a London news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, also called on the Syrian regime to release political prisoners.
"I think more will need to be done," added Hague. "We must not overstate the leverage of the international community on Syria.
"It does appear at the moment that the regime in Syria has decided to go down the path of repression, not reform, whatever international opinion may be."
The EU ministers in a statement urged "without delay and through a concrete timetable, meaningful political reforms. This is the only way to initiate a peaceful transition and provide stability for Syria in the long term."
In a final thrust, the ministers added the president and nine leading officials to an earlier blacklist of 13. The sanctions will take effect Tuesday.
Syria said the EU "erred when they attacked the president and when they adopted sanctions that harm the Syrian people".
"Today, the Europeans have added a black page to their record of colonialism in the region," Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in an interview on state television, accusing Europe of fomenting violence and discord.
"These measures are going to harm us as they will the interests of Europe, and Syria will not remain silent to this."
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, urged the UN Security Council to pass a resolution against Assad to help bring an end to the violence.
Stepping up pressure on Assad to halt weeks of relentless violence, the EU earlier this month imposed an arms embargo and targeted the president's innermost circle, including his brother and four cousins.
After also suspending development aid, the EU on Monday invited the European Investment Bank "to suspend" new financing operations in Syria.
Turning to Iran, the ministers added some 100 firms to a blacklist of companies hit by an assets freeze over Tehran's disputed nuclear programme, diplomats said.
The new restrictive measures come amid efforts to jumpstart international talks aimed at convincing Iran to halt its nuclear activities.
The EU also tightened the screws on Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.
An EU assets freeze and travel ban against Kadhafi loyalists and firms suspected of propping up the regime was extended to a member of the Libyan leader's inner circle and a Libyan airline, an EU diplomat said, without immediately disclosing details of those targeted.
The move came a day after the European Union officially opened an office in Benghazi -- a boost for the insurgents lobbying world powers to formally recognise their National Transitional Council (NTC).
In an added blessing, the ministers underlined in a statement "the important role" the NTC plays "as a key political interlocutor representing the aspirations of the Libyan people."
The words brought the EU a step closer to official recognition of the rebel body, a move long demanded by the European parliament. Up until now only Britain, France, Gambia, Italy and Qatar have recognised the NTC as their sole interlocutor in Libya.
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