BRUSSELS – The European Union committed itself on Friday to document war crimes in Syria to set the stage for a "day of reckoning" for the country's leadership, in the way that former Yugoslav leaders were tried for war crimes in the 1990s by a special U.N. tribunal.
The leaders of the 27 EU nations emerged from a two-day summit in Brussels condemning Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime for its nearly yearlong crackdown on an uprising that began with mostly peaceful protests but has developed into a civil war in which Syrian forces fire heavy artillery against civilians.
"We will make sure -- as we did in Serbia -- that there is a day of reckoning for those who are responsible," said British Prime Minister David Cameron, who accused the Assad regime of "butchering its own people."
"It is very important that we set out the war crimes that effectively are being committed, that we write them down, we take the photographic evidence, we bring it together and ... make sure that the day of reckoning will come," he told reporters.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy France used the summit to announce that his country is closing its embassy in Syria, a day after two French journalists escaped to Lebanon after being trapped for days in the besieged Syrian city of Homs. Britain and the United States also have closed their embassies there.
In Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the West on Friday of fueling the conflict by backing the opposition, but his Foreign Ministry said it would not protect Syria from military intervention.
In Brussels, the EU leaders said in a statement that they are "appalled by the situation in Syria." They pledged to step up sanctions against the Damascus regime "as long as the violence and human rights abuses continue."
The leaders again called on Assad "to step aside to make room for a peaceful transition for the sake of the country."
Both Cameron and Sarkozy said the situation in the Syrian city of Homs, which has come under fierce attacks by Syrian troops, was dramatic.
Sarkozy said some 8,000 people in the city have been killed and that France had closed its embassy in the capital, Damascus, for security reasons. "What I want to happen is that, at least at Syria's borders, humanitarian zones are set up for people persecuted by the Syrian regime."
Cameron said, "The Assad regime is butchering its own people. The history of Homs is being written in the blood of its citizens. The situation there is truly terrible. Constant shelling. No water, No food. No medicine. Freezing conditions. It is a scene of medieval barbarity."
In Moscow, Putin urged Syrian government and opposition forces to pull out of besieged cities to end the bloodshed, adding that Western refusal to make that demand of Assad's opponents has encouraged them to keep fighting.
The EU leaders, however, urged Russia and China to rethink their alliances with Syria that led the two countries to twice veto U.N. resolutions condemning Assad's crackdown and calls for him to step down.
The EU leaders' statement called "once more on all members of the United Nations Security Council, particularly Russia and China, to work together in an effort to stop the violence." It reiterated the EU's support for the Syrian opposition "in its struggle for freedom, dignity and democracy."
The EU leaders debated the withdrawal of their ambassadors from Damascus, but France and Britain remained the only nations in the bloc to decide on such a move.
The EU leaders did not spell out how Assad and officials around him could be put on trial.
The U.N. created a special tribunal in 1993 in The Hague, the Netherlands, to hear cases of grave human rights abuses and crimes of war and genocide committed in the Balkan wars of the 1980. To date it has indicted more than 160 individuals and sentenced about 125. Coincidentally, the EU leaders have just named Serbia -- a country that was central to Balkan wars -- as a candidate for membership in the EU.