The European Union slapped sanctions on the mother, sister and influential wife of President Bashar al-Assad on Friday, increasing pressure on Syria to halt its bloody crackdown against a year-long uprising.
The trio were among 12 Syrians added to a list of figures already hit with EU travel bans and asset freezes, diplomats said. Foreign ministers in Brussels also barred European firms from trading with two Syrian oil companies.
“With this new listing we are striking at the heart of the Assad clan, sending out a loud and clear message to Mr. Assad: he should step down,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal.
The decision came on a day of renewed violence across Syria, with the army firing at least 24 mortar rounds into the rebellious city of Homs, in central Syria, killing up to eight civilians, opposition supporters said.
Live television feeds from around Syria showed a slew of anti-Assad rallies, including in the Damascus district of Barzeh, in the northwestern city of Hama, in Qamishli in the Kurdish east, and in the southern city of Deraa.
“Damascus here we come,” read several placards held up by the relatively small crowds. Activists said eight people were wounded after demonstrations near five Damascus mosques were broken up.
On the diplomatic front, the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who is leading international efforts to stop the relentless mayhem, planned to travel to Moscow and Beijing this weekend for talks on the crisis, his spokesman said.
Russia and China have resisted Western and Arab demands that Assad stand down and have vetoed two U.N. resolutions highly critical of Damascus. However, they supported a Security Council statement this week calling for peace, in a move that analysts saw as a sign they were adopting a tougher stance on Syria.
Nevertheless, both Russia and China voted against a call by the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday to extend a probe into violations committed by Syrian forces. The motion passed regardless, with 41 of the forum’s 47 members voting in favor.
More than 8,000 people have died in the rebellion, according to U.N. figures, but Western powers have ruled out military intervention in such a sensitive part of the world, putting the emphasis instead on economic sanctions and diplomacy.
“THE REAL DICTATOR”
The new EU sanctions build on 12 previous rounds of sanctions aimed at isolating Assad, including an arms embargo and a ban on importing Syrian oil to the European Union.
Full details will be released on Saturday, when the measures come into force, but diplomats confirmed that Assad’s British-born wife was on the new list.
A former investment banker, Asma cultivated the image of a glamorous yet serious-minded woman with strong Western-inspired values who was meant to humanize the isolated Assad family, which has ruled Syria with an iron fist for more than 40 years.
But that image has crumbled over the past year, and she has stood resolutely by her husband’s side, describing herself as “the real dictator” in an email published by Britain’s Guardian newspaper last week.
Her ancestral home is Homs, now a symbol of the revolt which has been subjected to particularly fierce government attack. Video from the city on Friday showed plumes of smoke rising from residential areas after being hit by apparent mortar fire.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and has a network of contacts in Syria, said the army clashed with defectors in the north-eastern town of Azaz, on the border with Turkey. Three soldiers and one defector were killed as the army fired heavy machineguns and mortar rounds, it said.
Other activists working for the Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported 15 deaths on Friday around the country. They also said rebels had captured 17 members of the security forces in the northwestern Idlib province.
It is impossible to verify reports from Syria because authorities have denied access to independent journalists.
Syria has said 3,000 members of the security forces have died in the uprising, which Damascus blames on terrorist gangs and foreign interference.
ANNAN REVIEWING SITUATION
Annan has drawn up a six-point plan to end the unrest, including a demand for a ceasefire, political dialogue and full access for aid agencies. It also says the army should stop using heavy weapons in populated areas and pull troops back.
He sent five experts to Damascus earlier this week to discuss the deployment of international monitors—something Assad has resisted. The team has now left Syria and there was no immediate word if they had made any progress.
“Mr. Annan and his team are currently studying the Syrian responses carefully, and negotiations with Damascus continue,” his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in a statement from Geneva.
Asked whether Annan would be returning to Damascus for talks with Assad, Fawzi told a news briefing: “He will at some point decide to go back, but this is not the time yet.”
Instead he will head to Russia and China, no doubt hoping to persuade them to bring their influence to bear on Syria.
Unlike the Arab League and Western countries, Annan has not explicitly called for Assad to step down, talking only about the need for dialogue and political transition.
Russia has historically close ties to Syria, which is home to its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union. But analysts believe Moscow is starting to hedge its bets about Assad’s fate and is positioning itself for his possible fall.
Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak; in Brussels and Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Jon Boyle