BRUSSELS — European Union nations tightened the noose on Syria on Monday, slapping new sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's regime and urging UN action to protect civilians after eight months of bloodshed.
Foreign ministers from the 27-nation bloc blacklisted a further 18 Syrians, mostly members of the military, bringing to 74 the members of Assad's inner circle hit in past months by an EU assets freeze and travel ban.
Fresh pressure was needed due to the "bloody stubbornness" of the regime, said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe on joining talks with counterparts.
The ministers also agreed to stop Syria accessing funds from the European Investment Bank (EIB), the latest move by the EU to tighten economic pressure on Damascus.
"The EU will continue to impose additional and more comprehensive measures against the regime as long as the repression of the civilian population continues," the ministers said in a joint statement.
EIB loans to Syria between 1978 and 2010 totalled over 1.7 billion euros, more than half in the energy sector. It has earmarked 10.7 billion euros in the 2007-2013 period for projects in nine Mediterranean countries, including Syria.
To date, the EU has passed seven rounds of sanctions against the Assad regime, including an arms embargo, and bans on imports of Syrian crude oil and new investments and credits to the Syrian petrol sector. It previously blacklisted 56 people and 19 companies or utilities involved in the crackdown.
"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," said Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague.
The EU also "salutes and full supports" the Arab League's weekend suspension of Syria for failing to implement a plan to end violence that has left 3,500 dead since mid-March, according to the United Nations.
The suspension "shows the increasing isolation of the Syrian regime," the EU said, adding that the bloc "stands ready to engage with representative members of the opposition ... such as the Syrian National Council."
In a move that triggered anger and mob violence in Damascus, the Arab League also urged economic and political sanctions against the regime, failing enactment of an Arab plan for resolving the crisis accepted by Damascus on November 2.
Under the deal, the Assad regime agreed to release detainees, withdraw the army from urban areas, allow free movement for observers and media and negotiate with the opposition.
"It's very good that they have demonstrated the muscle that is necessary," Sweden's Carl Bildt said of the Arab League.
Ministers said the continuing bloodshed in Syria, despite the hopes raised by the Arab peace plan, called for international action.
"The time has come to see how we can better protect the population. I hope the Security Council will finally take a position," said France's Juppe.
"The European Union will continue to press for strong UN action to increase international pressure and urges all members of the Security Council to assume their responsibilities," the joint statement said.
Bildt said the UN should explore the dispatch of observers or a UN humanitarian mission.
But there was no talk of a Libya-style intervention to protect the population.
"This is a different situation from Libya. There is no United Nations Security Council resolution and Syria is a much more complex situation," said Britain's Hague.
China meanwhile pressed Syria to implement the peace plan while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned Syria's suspension as "incorrect."
Syria on Monday reiterated that it would not budge despite its suspension.
"Today there is a crisis in Syria which pays the price of its strong positions. Syria will not budge and will emerge stronger ... and plots against Syria will fail," said Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
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