By Claire Rosemberg (AFP) – Oct 15, 2012
LUXEMBOURG — Europe's foreign ministers will sharply ramp up the pressure on Iran and Syria at talks Monday, while taking a "big step" in Africa by agreeing to assist Mali reconquer its north from rebels and Islamist extremists.
Meeting days before a European Union summit, the bloc's 27 foreign ministers are tipped to agree what a diplomatic source dubbed "one of the toughest packages of sanctions" yet against Tehran over its disputed nuclear programme.
"Iran has not moved on any of the important questions over the past few months. Therefore, we must increase the sanctions pressure," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Sunday.
"We want the EU tomorrow to send a clear signal to Tehran," he added. "It is time for a political solution."
Diplomatic sources said EU m ember states will sanction dealings with banks, trade and gas imports, and agree for the first time to hit Iran's telecoms sector.
All dealings between European and Iranian banks will be banned above a certain "relatively low" threshold, although exceptions will be allowed in some medical and humanitarian cases, a diplomat said.
Imports of Iranian gas, though small, will be prohibited, and an extra 30 companies put on a list of firms hit by an EU assets freeze.
As violence intensifies in Syria, the ministers are to slap an assets freeze and travel ban on 28 Syrians and two firms, the 20th set of sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad's regime since the start of the conflict in March last year.
The measures target people linked to violence against protestors, and firms accused of supplying equipment used for repression by the regime.
Differences of view over the Syria conflict and how to end it were at the centre of closed door talks in Luxembourg on Sunday night between the 27 ministers and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
The three-and-a-half-hour dinner meeting was "very good" with talks "open, frank and friendly," touching on Syria and Iran, as well as bilateral problems, said a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Moscow has repeatedly refused to back international calls for Assad to step down and together with China jointly vetoed three rounds of UN Security Council sanctions against the Syrian leader.
Germany's Westerwelle said as the dinner began that it was essential for world peace that the EU iron out kinks in its ties with its powerful eastern neighbour.
"It is precisely because of international unrest that dialogue with Russia on key issues is irreplaceable despite differences of opinion," Westerwelle's office quoted him as saying.
"We do not have the right to renounce the quest for joint solutions to international issues, even if it is very difficult at the moment with the Syrian conflict," he added.
Taking what a Brussels diplomat described as "a big step for the EU", the ministers are to tell Africa the bloc is ready to help Mali reconquer its vast north from pro-Al Qaeda forces by assisting a West African military force and helping train and reorganise the country's ragtag army.
"The situation in the Sahel is not looking good," said a senior EU official close to the matter. "If we don't take action it will only get worse."
The ministers are to sign off on an accord before a key meeting in Bamako on Friday, where the West African regional body ECOWAS, the African Union, the EU, the United Nations and Mali's neighbours hope to flesh out a political and military strategy to end the crisis.
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