By Justyna Pawlak and David Brunnstrom
BRUSSELS, Feb 27 (Reuters) - European Union foreign ministers agreed new sanctions against Syria on Monday, targeting its central bank and seven cabinet ministers to try to curb funding for the government and increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad.
The measures, expected to be enforced this week, include prohibiting trade in gold and other precious metals with Syrian state institutions and a ban on cargo flights from Syria operated by the country's carriers.
"Today's decisions will put further pressure on those who are responsible for the ruthless campaign of repression in Syria," the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement.
"The measures target the regime and its ability to conduct the appalling violence against civilians. As long as the repression continues, the EU will keep imposing sanctions."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the sanctions, at least the tenth round imposed by the EU on Syria, were critical for putting pressure on Assad to end violence in which around 6,000 people have been killed over the past 11 months.
But other than sanctions, few concrete steps emerged from Monday's talks, underlying the West's difficulty in finding a solution to the crisis in Syria, with efforts to get a U.N. Security Council resolution blocked by China and Russia.
EU governments renewed international calls on Damascus to allow humanitarian aid into Syria but offered no plan on how to enforce this. France, one of EU's military powers, has suggested that U.N. set up humanitarian corridors in Syria to alleviate civilian suffering. But any such move would have to secure backing from Moscow and Beijing and that remains unlikely.
EU institutions and governments have allocated 8 million euros ($10.77 million) for humanitarian assistance in Syria, but lack of access is hindering the delivery of aid.
EU states also reiterated their support for the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group, but said anti-government activists needed to come up with a unified approach and alleviate concerns about sectarian conflict in the country.
In her statement, Ashton referred to the Syrian National Council as "an important interlocutor" rather than as the EU's sole point of contact with Syrian groups arrayed against Assad.
That contrasts with last year's recognition of Libya's rebel council as that country's legitimate representative.
Western concerns at the divisions among the Syrian opposition are complicating efforts to lend support to them and adding to worries that the Syrian conflict could further inflame sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East.
"We've talked to a number of different groups in Syria and we've been saying to them: 'come together and try to form a group together to be able to represent as many people as possible'," Ashton said.
"Inclusivity would enable everyone to feel they have a future. We want to see a united opposition, that's so important, if they are going to be able to reach out to all the people."
Sunni Muslims account for about 70 percent of Syria's 23 million people. Assad has strong backing among fellow Alawites, a sect with its roots in Shi'ite Islam. There are also large minority communities of Christians, ethnic Kurds and others.
EU governments have steadily ratcheted up sanctions against Syria over the past six months but have been careful to take the lead from Arab states in their approach.
Monday's decision complements an oil embargo imposed in September, and extends the list of people targeted. More than a hundred Syrians, including Assad, already face asset freezes and visa bans.
European firms are also banned from doing business with nearly 40 Syrian companies and institutions, some of them large businesses involved in trading and exploring for oil.
Western sanctions are taking a toll on the Syrian economy and powering discontent among the middle classes, from which Assad draws much of his support.
Oil sanctions have damaged a vital source of hard-currency income - EU states used to buy some 90 percent of oil exports, and the Syrian pound has hit record lows against the dollar on the black market.
But Assad shows no sign of easing the crackdown on protesters and armed rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
|@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.|
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say. Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
|@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|