EU extends Syria sanctions


European Union governments agreed today to extend sanctions against Syria to 18 more individuals associated with a violent crackdown on dissent, but signalled Western military action against the government was unlikely.

EU foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, also approved plans to stop the country accessing funds from the European Investment Bank (EIB), in a bid to crank up economic pressure against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

EU leaders warned last month that Syria could face further sanctions if there was no halt to the violence, which the United Nations says has lead to the death of more than 3,500 protesters.

British foreign secretary William Hague said there was a good case for further extending EU sanctions, which from tomorrow will affect 74 individuals and 19 firms and entities.

Eighteen officials were added to the EU's list of people affected by a travel ban and asset freeze on Monday; their names will be made public tomorrow.

"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 against the people of Syria," Mr Hague told reporters as he entered the meeting of EU foreign ministers.

Mr Hague welcomed efforts by the Arab League to end the crisis.

In a surprise move on Saturday, the Arab League suspended Syria's membership and called on its army to stop killing civilians and some Western leaders said this should prompt tougher international action against Dr Assad.

The Arab League will also impose economic and political sanctions on Damascus and has appealed to member states to withdraw their ambassadors.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was in close contact with the Arab League to work on an approach to Syria.

"The situation in Syria causes enormous concern. I spoke last night to the secretary general of the Arab League and expressed our commitment to working closely with them," she said.

Arab states stopped short of calling for international military action against Dr Assad's governments, and several EU foreign ministers gathering in Brussels reiterated Western reluctance to get involved in another conflict after a seven-month campaign in Libya that helped anti-government protesters topple Muammar Gadafy.

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

The Syrian government today said it was confident Russia and China would continue to block Western efforts at the United Nations to condemn its crackdown on protesters.

Foreign minister Walid al-Moualem also played down the prospect of any Western military intervention in Syria.

"The Libya scenario will not be repeated", he said referring to the West's military intervention in Libya, which was backed by a UN resolution, in which China and Russia abstained.

Syria blames armed groups for the violence and says 1,200 members of the security forces have been killed. Dr Assad, from the minority Alawite community which has held power for four decades in mainly Muslim Syria, has said he has used legitimate means to confront a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife.

EU governments on Wednesday agreed to stop Syria accessing funds from the European Investment Bank, preventing the Syrian government from receiving any more cash under existing loan projects.

The EU already tightened sanctions against Syria in October, adding the Commercial Bank of Syria to a list of entities sanctioned in protest against repression of dissent.

In September, it imposed an embargo on crude oil imports from Syria and banned EU firms from new investment in its oil industry. It also imposed sanctions on the main mobile phone firm, Syriatel, and the largest private company, Cham Holding.