05/23/2011, 00.00
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Europe imposes sanctions on Assad as Syria inches its way towards civil war

The European Union imposed sanctions on Assad today. His regime has failed so far to quell weeks of unrest. More people have died in recent days. Near the border with Lebanon, the military and Alawi militias are killing Sunnis, who are responding in kind.
Damascus (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The European Union has imposed sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, turning up the pressure on his government to end the growing violence against civilians who have been demanding democratic changes for weeks. Thousands of Syrian Sunnis are fleeing to northern Lebanon to escape the violence and armed clashes.

EU foreign ministers agreed in Brussels to add several Syrian officials, including Assad, to the list of people affected by EU travel restrictions and asset freeze. The restrictions are similar to those adopted by the United States on 18 May, especially damaging for Assad and his wife, who has dual British and Syrian citizenship.

Two weeks ago, the EU had imposed sanctions on top government officials, but not Assad, hoping this might help end peacefully the protests.

The latest sanctions were adopted after Syrian Security Forces opened fire on Saturday, as a funeral was underway in Homs for victims of government repression. At least five people were killed, and 12 wounded. In the past ten weeks, more than 900 people have died in protests.

Experts agree that the Syrian government is not going to give up the use of force despite protests and international pressures.

Protesters claim that thousands of people have been killed. The authorities have expelled most foreign journalists, making any independent verification impossible to do.

The National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria raised last Friday’s death toll to 44, in the latest demonstration after Friday prayers.

In Damascus, thousands of people took to the streets yesterday, calling for the resignation of the government.

Assad has distanced himself from the violence of the Security Forces but has been able to stop them.

For the United States and the European Union, the Syrian leader is increasingly losing his credibility and is no longer seen as capable as negotiating a peaceful transition. For this reason, they have called on him to resign.

For his part, the president has blamed armed groups backed by Muslim extremists and foreign powers for attacking and killing 120 soldiers and police.

Syria, a country of 22 million people, is thus on the verge of civil war. The military is not only cracking down on demonstrations but is also engaged in house-to-house searches to arrest the adversaries of the regime.

Last week-end, thousands of Syrians began pouring across the border with northern Lebanon. They fled Tel Kalakh and other towns near the border.

Refugees complain of systematic violence on the part of the military, which is controlled by the country’s Alawi minority, the backbone of the Assad regime.

They accuse Alawi paramilitary groups, like the Shabiha, of arresting and summarily executing Sunnis, as well as destroying mosques like the Omar bin Khattab Mosque. Shabiha militiamen are said to be shooting people in the streets.

Local residents have responded by arming themselves and fighting back, leading to gun battles in town.

In Lebanon, black market sales of weapons for Syria are up.

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