EU ministers brace for al-Assad speech, weigh more Syria sanctions

EU ministers brace for al-Assad speech, weigh more Syria sanctions

EU foreign ministers said Monday they would be closely watching an expected speech by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as they gathered in Luxembourg to consider further sanctions on the Syrian regime, DPA reported.

"I expect that (al-Assad) regains his wisdom," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said as he arrived for the talks. "In the past, he has made a lot of promises. Unfortunately, over the past months, he has lost it."

"The international community has given him maybe his last chance. I hope he takes it," he added. "Many of us are losing their hope in the possibility of Assad turning completely to the reform path."

Syria's state news agency SANA reported late Sunday that al-Assad would make a speech at noon (0900 GMT) on Monday. It would be his third major speech since protests began in mid-March.

Despite brutal suppression by his regime, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have taken to the streets to demand greater democracy and civil liberties. Human rights groups have said more than 1,300 civilians have been killed in the unrest.

"We are not far from a civil war," Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, warned, encouraging the Arab League to up the pressure on Assad.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle spoke of "images of inhumanity" and "cruelty" coming out of Syria, as he called for a united international approach - specifically singling out Russian opposition to a resolution in the United Nations Security Council.

The failure of the security council to find consensus on a resolution condemning the violence could be seen as "indirect tolerance of what is going on in Syria," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt warned.

The EU has so far instituted travel bans and asset freezes on 23 Syrians, including al-Assad. It is now considering expanding that list and halting business contacts with certain Syrian companies.

Diplomats said that Britain would be pushing for sanctions to also be applied to Iranians who have lent support to the Syrian regime.

A decision is not expected on Monday, but could come at an EU summit later this week, officials have said.

The repression of popular uprisings in Yemen, Libya and Belarus is also expected to be discussed in Luxembourg, with further sanctions on the table for the latter two.

Some officials have called for restrictive measures against the regime of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to be broadened to companies that financially support his regime.

"The key is always with sanctions to avoid targeting the people who are actually calling for change," Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said as he arrived in Luxembourg. "Companies is usually the best way to go about it."

Also on Monday, the ministers are expected to discuss the upcoming independence of Southern Sudan and the stalled Middle East peace process. The EU's top foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton, will be briefing the ministers on her recent trip to the region.

"It is very important that the Israelis and Palestinians return to the negotiations," British Foreign Minister William Hague said.

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