x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

EU imposes sanctions on Asma Al Assad

Syrian president's wife and mother among those hit with travel ban and asset freeze; fighting continues in the country's north.

BEIRUT // The European Union imposed sanctions on the wife and three other family members of President Bashar Al Assad yesterday as fierce clashes continued between Syrian government and army defectors near the Turkish border, activists said.

The sanctions banned Asma Al Assad, the British-born wife of the Syrian president, from travelling to EU countries and froze any assets she may have there.

The same sanctions were also imposed on Mr Al Assad's mother, sister and sister-in-law, and eight government ministers, in a continuing attempt to stop the bloody crackdown on opposition in the country.

The move by Europe's foreign ministers came as the UN's children's agency revealed the toll the conflict is taking on Syria's young.

Unicef said at least 500 children had been killed in the violence, with hundreds more injured, placed in detention or abused while schools and health centres have shut down or become too dangerous for families to reach.

The UN estimates that more than 8,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in Syria a year ago.

Yesterday, the UN's top human rights body sharply condemned the crackdown. The 47-member Human Rights Council's resolution condemned "widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms perpetrated by the Syrian authorities" including summary executions, torture and sexual abuse of detainees and children, and other abuses.

The UN also announced that the joint UN-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, would travel to Russia and China for more talks aimed at resolving the crisis peacefully.

Western countries have pushed for UN Security Council action, but Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions criticising Mr Al Assad's regime.

"Negotiations are at a very delicate stage," said Mr Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi. "The crisis on the ground is severe. We have to make progress on the ground soon. Every minute counts."

The EU has imposed 12 previous rounds of sanctions against the Assad regime, yet Syria's crackdown against dissent has only intensified. Still, the French foreign minister Alain Juppe said he believed the regime was getting weaker.

"Their economic situation becomes ever more difficult. Syria has few reserves," Mr Juppe said. "We think its economic situation will become untenable."

Mr Al Assad himself has been the subject of EU sanctions since May. His 36-year-old wife was born in London, spent much of her life there, and has British citizenship.

Britain's Home Office said yesterday that a British citizen subject to a EU travel ban could not be refused entry into the country.

But the British foreign secretary William Hague said that "given that we are imposing an asset freeze on all of these individuals and a travel ban on other members of the same family and the regime, we are not expecting Mrs Al Assad to try to travel to the United Kingdom at the moment."

The regime however is pressing on with several offensives throughout the country, including in northern areas close to the rebels' main supply bases in Turkey.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the clashes in the town of Azaz in the northern province of Aleppo have left at least three soldiers and one defector dead. The Observatory, which has a network of activists around Syria, said military helicopters were seen flying over the town, 8km from the Turkish border.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said troops were attacking residential areas in Azaz with heavy machine gunfire and mortar rounds.

The Observatory also reported that 24 mortar rounds fell yesterday morning in several neighbourhoods in Homs - Bab Dreib, Safsaf and Warsheh. It said two people were killed in Safsaf.

Homs has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the uprising.

Activists also reported demonstrations in different parts of Syria after midday prayers, and said government troops fired on protesters.

The Observatory said security forces opened fire at a demonstration of about 1,000 people in the Damascus neighbourhood of Kfar Souseh, wounding at least eight.

The LCC said security forces opened fire at protesters in the northern city of Aleppo, adding that there were casualties. The city is Syria's largest, which is also one of Mr Al Assad's main centres of support.

Others protested in the southern province of Daraa, the coastal city of Latakia, the eastern oil-rich region of Deir El Zour, and the city of Hama, where three were reported wounded.

The LCC said a total of at least 18 people were killed throughout the country. The Observatory said five were killed.

* Associated Press