EU Moves Closer to Sanctions on Syria Over ‘Brutal Crackdown’

The European Union was moving to expand sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as his military stepped up a crackdown against protestors that has left hundreds dead.

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague has been pushing the EU to go beyond an arms embargo and impose travel restrictions and asset freezes on top Syrian officials. The Syrian violence will be discussed by Hague and other foreign ministers from the 22-nation contact group in talks in Rome today aimed at ending the Libyan conflict.

“I appreciate very much the call for EU sanctions, which should be pursued,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today before the start of the meeting. “Together we have to show the Syrian government there are consequences for this brutal crackdown on the Syrian people.”

Pressure to impose further sanctions against Syria has been building as the army intensifies its violence against widening protests that are posing the most serious challenge to the 11-year rule of President Assad. A total of 553 civilians and 105 army and security personnel have been killed since March 18, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its website today. Hundreds of others have been detained.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he discussed expanding sanctions with Clinton today and the package would include restrictions “on the movement of individuals directly involved in violence that has been committed in the last few weeks.”

‘Severe Sanctions’

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called on the international community to adopt “the most severe sanctions” against Syria in an interview yesterday with weekly magazine L’Express.

The Syrian army began withdrawing today from the southern city of Daraa, the scene of the most violent crackdown by military forces since the protests began, state-run television reported.

“Army units began to pull out gradually from Daraa after completing their mission by detaining terrorist elements and restoring security and calm,” it said today.

Syria sent troops into cities to quell demonstrations, inspired by popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year, that have spread across the country. In response, Assad has ended emergency rule that was in place from 1963 and pledged future reforms that have failed to halt the spread of demonstrations.

The contact group is meeting after Libyan forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi bombarded the port of Misrata yesterday. The attacks threatened an aid ship trying to deliver supplies and evacuate stranded migrant workers and wounded Libyans. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his government will present a peace plan at the meeting that involves Qaddafi giving up power.

In New York, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor said he will seek arrest warrants for three key regime figures for alleged war crimes.

During her time in Rome, Clinton is expected to meet with representatives of Libya’s Transitional National Council, the interim authority set up by the rebels in the eastern city of Benghazi.

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