EU extends Syria sanctions, stops EIB funds

Justyna Pawlak And David Brunnstrom

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union governments agreed on Monday to extend sanctions against Syria to 18 more individuals associated with its violent crackdown on dissent, but signaled that Western military action against the government was unlikely for now.

EU foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, also sought to increase economic pressure on President Bashar al-Assad by approving plans to stop Syria accessing funds from EU's European Investment Bank (EIB).

EU leaders warned last month that Syria could face new sanctions if there was no halt to the violence, in which the United Nations says more than 3,500 protesters have died.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said there was a good case for further extending EU measures, which from Tuesday 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 on Tuesday.

"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," Hague told reporters.

EU ministers welcomed efforts by the Arab League to end the Syrian crisis and said they would continue to press for United Nations action to bolster international pressure on Assad.

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 Assad.

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

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EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was in close contact with Arab leaders to work on a joint approach.

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

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

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

Aside from concerns over additional burdens on defense budgets, Western leaders are wary of more instability in the Middle East, given Syria's links with Iran. There is also reluctance about backing Syria's fragmented opposition.

Addressing anti-government forces, EU ministers said in a statement they were ready to "engage with representative members of the opposition which adhere to non-violence and democratic values such as the Syrian National Council."

But the impact of sanctions will likely continue to be blunted by a lack of sufficient international cooperation.

The Syrian government on Monday 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.

Syria blames armed groups for the violence and says 1,200 members of the security forces have been killed.

Monday's decision could deprive Assad of hundreds of millions of euros in EIB loans, adding to other economic measures already taken by the EU.

The EU had banned European firms from doing business with the Commercial Bank of Syria, the country's largest commercial bank, as well as with its main mobile phone operator and the largest private company, Cham Holding.

In September, it imposed an embargo on crude oil imports from Syria and banned EU firms from new investment in its oil industry.

Reuters