EU's Syria sanctions target Assad's wife

Syrian President Bashar Assad and First Lady Asma Assad arrive at Al-Jalaa Stadium in Damascus, June 30, 2011, to meet with regime supporters. AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 12:49 p.m. ET

(AP) BRUSSELS - EU foreign ministers imposed sanctions Friday on Asma Assad, the stylish, British-born wife of the Syrian president, banning her from traveling to European Union countries and freezing any assets she may have there.

The foreign ministers also imposed the same sanctions on President Bashar Assad's mother, sister and sister-in-law, and eight government ministers, in a continuing attempt to stop the bloody crackdown on opposition in the country.

In addition, the assets of two Syrian companies have been frozen, an EU official said. Bashar Assad himself has been the subject of EU sanctions since May.

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Also Friday, the United Nations' top human rights body sharply condemned the crackdown and the U.N. announced that the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, would travel to Russia and China for more talks aimed at resolving the crisis peacefully.

The U.N. estimates that more than 8,000 people have been killed since an uprising began in Syria a year ago. Its children's agency UNICEF said Friday that toll includes at least 500 children killed in the violence, with hundreds more injured, placed in detention or abused while schools and health centers have shut down or become too dangerous for families to reach.

The EU has imposed 12 previous rounds of sanctions against the Syrian regime, yet the crackdown has only intensified. But French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he believed the regime was getting weaker.

"Their economic situation becomes ever more difficult. Syria has few reserves," Juppe told reporters. "We think its economic situation will become untenable.

Asma Assad, 36, was born in London, spent much of her life there, and has British citizenship. She has been seen as the softer face of the ruling family — an attractive and refined woman dubbed "chic" by France's Elle magazine and "sexy" by The Sun, Britain's top-selling tabloid.

In thousands of personal e-mails apparently intercepted by the Syrian opposition and published in newspapers earlier this month, Mrs. Assad demonstrated a love of expensive furniture, fine jewelry and Christian Louboutin shoes. In one email she was reported to have ordered euro35,000 ($46,300) worth of furniture and candlesticks from a Paris boutique.

"We had a certain number of indications — I am sure it has not escaped you — how the wife of president Assad uses her money. It is perhaps this that pushed us to toughen the sanctions," Juppe said.

A month before the start of the Syrian regime's brutal repression, Vogue magazine praised her for her charity work, calling her "A Rose of the Desert."

Asma Assad, who is of Syrian heritage, moved to the country in 2000 to marry the president, who had previously been an ophthalmologist in Britain.

Britain's Home Office said Friday that a British citizen subject to a EU travel ban could not be refused entry into the country.

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that "given that we are imposing an asset freeze on all of these individuals and a travel ban on other members of the same family and the regime we are not expecting Mrs. Assad to try to travel to the United Kingdom at the moment."

Annan and two aides will go to Moscow and Beijing to press the case for his six-point plan, his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said. Western countries have pushed for U.N. Security Council action, but Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions criticizing Assad's regime.

"Negotiations are at a very delicate stage. He's not going to mediate through the media," Fawzi said. "The crisis on the ground is severe. We have to make progress on the ground soon. Every minute counts."

Fawzi told reporters Friday that Annan's team is "currently studying the Syrian responses carefully and negotiations with Damascus continue."

On Wednesday, the U.N.'s Security Council issued a nonbinding statement calling for a cease-fire and endorsing Annan's plan, which includes continued talks and a daily two-hour halt in the fighting to provide aid.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking in Brussels, where the EU foreign ministers are meeting, said Friday it was very important to increase pressure on the Syrian regime.

"Their behavior continues to be murdering and totally unacceptable in the eyes of the world," he said on his way into the meeting.

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