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EU considers sanctions on Syria

Ambassadors from the 27 EU governments are meeting in Brussels today (29 April) to discuss ways of raising the pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with Britain, France, and Germany pushing for tough measures if the violence continues.

Ambassadors will consider imposing sanctions on the Syrian leadership for the first time, including an asset freeze, travel bans and an arms embargo. 

The sanctions are being discussed amid increasing pressure on the Syrian regime to halt the bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters, which is now believed to have claimed at least 500 lives.

Hundreds of members of President Bashar al-Assad's Ba'ath party have resigned in protest against the repression.

Figures that would be targeted by the EU sanctions would include the president's "extended family" and other key officials in the military and security apparatus, according to diplomats in Brussels.

Syria could also be facing a suspension of EU aid worth €130 million and a freeze on €1.3 billion in funds from the European Investment Bank.

"The situation has become unacceptable," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy after a bilateral summit with Italy on Tuesday (26 April).

"Together we send a strong call to Damascus authorities to stop the violent repression of what are peaceful demonstrations and we ask all sides to act with moderation," Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said at a joint news conference in Rome.

Earlier on Monday (25 April), Britain, France, Germany and Portugal asked the UN Security Council to condemn the violence of Syria's violent crackdown against protesters. There was no move to discuss the possibility of UN sanctions against Syria at the moment, one diplomat said.

Other EU countries such as Austria and Sweden are more lukewarm towards the idea of imposing sanctions, saying they are not always efficient.

Background

The Ba'ath Party, which seized power in Syria nearly 50 years ago, has governed under emergency laws and banned all opposition. Other grievances against the authorities include the dominance of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's minority Alawites over the Sunni Muslim majority, corruption, economic hardship and the rising cost of living.

In recent weeks, Bashar al-Assad, 45, has been facing up to the gravest crisis in his 11-year rule as anti-government protests sweep across the country, calling for political freedom and an end to corruption.

The soft-spoken Bashar took office after the death of his formidable father Hafez al-Assad, who brooked no dissent and refused to buckle during the Arab-Israeli conflict for 30 years.

Under Bashar al-Assad, Syria has been Iran's closest Arab ally, a major force in Lebanon, and a supporter of Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups.

The United States resumed full diplomatic relations with Syria last January. However, tensions have grown again over neighbouring Lebanon, where Damascus ally Hezbollah has gained the upper hand in a political crisis.

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