BRUSSELS – The European Union agreed to place sanctions on Syrian officials next week as it tries to halt a government crackdown against protesters, an EU official said Friday.
The official said the EU will freeze the assets of 13 Syrian government officials and ban them from traveling anywhere in the European Union. The sanctions, however, will not apply to Syrian President Bashar Assad as the EU pursues a gradual approach.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for disclosing confidential information.
"I strongly support today's agreement to impose tough sanctions on those responsible for the violence we have witnessed in Syria," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. "The EU is sending a clear message that we will act against those who brutalize peaceful protesters and seek to repress their legitimate aspirations for reform."
France's Foreign Ministry also hailed the decision, calling the move "a first step."
"We are going to work without delay with our EU partners to enlarge the list of people targeted, including the highest Syrian leaders, given the current developments," the ministry said in a statement.
"France is extremely worried about the continued repression in Syria... These massive attacks on human rights are unacceptable."
At the United Nations, Britain, France and Germany again pressed the U.N. Security Council to respond to the Syrian government's deadly crackdown on protesters, stressing the regional implications of the violence.
Britain's deputy U.N. ambassador Philip Parham said "we pointed out that the situation is in danger of having a serious effect on the wider region."
But he said Britain has not yet decided how to pursue Hague's instruction for British diplomats at the U.N. to begin discussions "to seek U.N. condemnation of the situation."
Syrian security forces opened fire on protesters earlier Friday, as thousands joined demonstrations across the country calling for an end to Assad's regime, witnesses and activists said. Rights groups say the security forces have repeatedly fired on protesters around the country in the past week, killing scores.
Since mid-December, a wave of protests and upheavals have taken place across the Middle East and North Africa, driving the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt from power. A civil conflict continues to rage in Libya, and Bahrain and Yemen have also been the subject of uprisings.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, appears determined to crush a revolt that has become the gravest challenge to his family's 40-year dynasty. He has tried a combination of brute force, intimidation and promises of reform to quell the unrest, but so far his attempts have failed.
On Friday, envoys of the 27 nations that make up the European Union decided to impose the sanctions on specific members of the Syrian regime. The measures can only be formally adopted by the heads of government, which is expected to happen early next week. That is considered a formality because, the assumption is, the national envoys who approved the sanctions Friday were already acting on the instructions of their governments.
Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.