BEIRUT – Syria's foreign minister acknowledged Monday that European sanctions will hurt Syrian interests, but he said Damascus will not allow foreign countries to impose their will on Syria.
The European Union instituted an assets freeze and a visa ban Monday on President Bashar Assad and nine members of his regime over its harsh crackdown on a popular uprising. The U.S. also has imposed sanctions, and President Barack Obama said last week that Assad should lead his country to democracy or "get out of the way."
Human rights groups say more than 900 people have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March.
"Just as the measures will hurt Syrian interests, they will also hurt European interests," Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told state-run Syrian television in an interview.
"They are trying to impose their will on Syrian decision-making, but history has proven that Syria does not succumb to pressure," he said, calling the sanctions a "mistake."
He added that Syria was still free to do business with other powerful nations.
"We will also strengthen our relationship with Russia, China, Malaysia and Latin America to prove to the West that the world is wide and is not made up only of America and Europe," he said.
Al-Moallem said he was not concerned about military intervention similar to the NATO actions in Libya.
"We do not have a tempting amount of oil to make them think about it," he said. "To those who are counting on Western assistance, I say: 'You are disillusioned. The West has its own interests.'"
The revolt has posed the most serious challenge to the Assad family's 40-year ruling dynasty. Assad has blamed the unrest on thugs and foreign agitators looking to destabilize Syria.
"I say to our great people, I am betting on your awareness and your knowledge of what is being plotted against Syria," Al-Moallem said. "Increase your national unity, rally more around your president and you will find that reform is coming."
In neighboring Lebanon on Monday, Lebanese soldiers acted as a buffer between pro- and anti-Assad protesters who blocked traffic in Beirut's main commercial and residential Hamra Street, highlighting concerns that the crisis in Syria could spill over into tiny Lebanon.
Many in Lebanon support the uprising in Syria, which maintained troops in the country for 29 years before withdrawing in 2005. But the Syrian regime still holds considerable sway over Lebanese politics, with many loyalists among the population and politicians.
Human rights activist Mustafa Osso told The Associated Press on Monday there were demonstrations late Sunday in the central cities of Homs and Hama, the northern province of Idlib and the Damascus suburb of Douma.
Unlike previous days when security forces used live ammunition to disperse the protests, security agents sprayed the protesters with water and beat them with batons, Osso said. Dozens of people were detained.
Speaking by telephone from Syria, Osso also said the death toll from a crackdown on Friday's wave of protests had risen to 58. The figure given earlier by human rights groups was at least 44.
Also Monday, Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent Syrian lawyer and human rights activist, said he was released from prison after finishing a 5-year jail term. He was sentenced by a criminal court on charges of spreading false news that might weaken the nation's morals.
Al-Bunni told the AP after his release Sunday that "freedom would remain incomplete unless it includes all detainees."
Hundreds — and possibly thousands — of political detainees are being held in Syrian jails.
Zeina Karam can be reached at http://twitter.com/zkaram