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EU piles pressure on defiant Syria

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EU piles pressure on defiant Syria

Bashar al-Assad - Photo EC

(BRUSSELS) - European Union nations piled extra pressure on defiant Syria on Monday, slapping new sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's regime and urging international action to protect civilians.

As Syria stood increasingly isolated after its weekend suspension from the Arab League, the EU's 27 foreign ministers pledged to stand behind Arab leaders to seek a way out after eight months of unrelenting bloodshed.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she had been in touch with Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi on how to protect civilians. "We will keep in touch and see what can be done."

Ministers meanwhile blacklisted a further 18 Syrians, mostly members of the military, bringing to 74 the members of Assad's inner circle hit in past months by an EU assets freeze and travel ban.

Fresh pressure was needed due to the "bloody stubbornness" of the regime, said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.

The ministers also agreed to stop Syria accessing funds from the European Investment Bank (EIB), the latest move by the EU to tighten economic pressure on Damascus.

"The EU will continue to impose additional and more comprehensive measures against the regime as long as the repression of the civilian population continues," the ministers said in a joint statement.

The EIB has 15 ongoing loans to Syria worth 1.37 billion euros, of which 560 million have been disbursed, officials said.

But remaining disbursements depend on progress in projects and "the reality is that we are witnessing a significant slowdown in several of the projects because of the situation on the ground," an EIB official said.

To date, the EU has passed seven rounds of sanctions against the Assad regime, including an arms embargo, and bans on imports of Syrian crude oil and new investments and credits to the Syrian petrol sector. It previously blacklisted 56 people and 19 companies or utilities involved in the crackdown.

"It's very important in the European Union that we consider additional measures to add to the pressure on the Assad regime to stop the unacceptable violence," said Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague.

The EU also said it "salutes and fully supports" the Arab League's suspension of Syria for failing to implement a plan to end violence that has left 3,500 dead since mid-March, according to the United Nations.

It "shows the increasing isolation of the Syrian regime," the EU said, adding that the bloc "stands ready to engage with representative members of the opposition ... such as the Syrian National Council."

In a move that triggered anger and mob violence in Damascus, the League also urged economic and political sanctions against the regime, failing enactment of an Arab plan for resolving the crisis accepted by Damascus on November 2.

Under the deal, the Assad regime agreed to release detainees, withdraw the army from urban areas, allow free movement for observers and media and negotiate with the opposition.

"It's very good that they have demonstrated the muscle that is necessary," Sweden's Carl Bildt said.

Ministers said continuing bloodshed in Syria, despite the hopes raised by the Arab peace plan, called for international action.

"The time has come to see how we can better protect the population. I hope the Security Council will finally take a position," said France's Juppe.

"The European Union will continue to press for strong UN action to increase international pressure and urges all members of the Security Council to assume their responsibilities," the joint statement said.

Bildt said the UN should explore the dispatch of observers or a UN humanitarian mission.

But there was no talk of a Libya-style intervention to protect the population.

"This is a different situation from Libya. There is no United Nations Security Council resolution and Syria is a much more complex situation," said Britain's Hague.

Ashton added: "You ask me if Syria is comparable with Libya. I don't think it's the same situation: no two countries are the same."

Main points of EU statement on Syria

Council conclusions on Syria

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