EU Diplomats pressure Syria to end violence

A Syrian protester beats a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad with a shoe at a protest in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, April 26, 2011. AP

GENEVA - European capitals summoned Syrian ambassadors Wednesday to demand that President Bashar Assad stop gunning down his people and Germany said sanctions were possible if the crackdown did not ease.

France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain told Syrian ambassadors in a coordinated effort that they condemned the recent violence in the Middle Eastern country and that Assad must change his ways, France's foreign ministry said.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Berlin would strongly support EU sanctions against the Syrian leadership. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said an arms embargo, asset freezes and travel restrictions were possible measures.

"If there is not an immediate change of course by the Syrian leadership, the international community will have to draw consequences — then sanctions against Syria will be inevitable," Westerwelle said.

Complete coverage: Anger in the Arab world

The European condemnation was a significant blow to Assad, a British-educated self-styled reformer who has made a high priority of efforts to bring Syria back into the global mainstream, efforts that included hosting a series of visits from European diplomats.

It was far from clear, however, if Europe's shaming of Assad would have enough impact to moderate his government's brutal handling of the Syrian uprising.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Council based at the United Nations' European headquarters in Geneva agreed to a U.S. request for a special session Friday focused on Syria. It is unusual for the U.N.'s 47-nation council to agree to such a request singling out the behavior of one nation.

More gunfire, explosions in besieged Syrian city

The EU's political and security committee was also planning to discuss Syria on Friday in Brussels and "all options are on the table," Michael Mann, a spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said.

U.S. officials have said Washington has begun drawing up targeted sanctions against him, his family and his inner circle to boost pressure on them to halt the repression. Four European countries — Britain, France, Germany and Portugal — have circulated a draft media statement to the U.N. Security Council condemning the violence in Syria. The council will discuss the statement Wednesday.

The relentless government crackdown against pro-democracy protesters has killed more than 400 people across Syria since mid-March, with 120 dead over the weekend, according to the U.N. Security forces have conducted sweeping arrests and raids across the country.

The U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, has appealed to Assad to withdraw his forces and is preparing to visit Syria and independently assess the situation on the ground.

Britain's top diplomat insisted Wednesday it isn't too late for Assad to embrace democratic reforms, despite his violent crackdown on protesters. But Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio that Assad may not command enough power to convince other members of his inner circle of the need for changes.

"One of the difficulties in Syria," said Hague, who visited Syria in January for talks, "is that President Assad's power depends on a wide group of people in his own family and, of course, other members of his own government."

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