Middle East

US tightens sanctions on Syria amid crackdown

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Media captionSyrian activists say that government forces are back in the city of Hama just one day after having pulled out.

The US has ramped up pressure on Syria by imposing sanctions on its main commercial bank and its mobile phone operator, following continued attacks on opposition activists.

The US Treasury said it was targeting the financial resources of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The measures came as activists said Syrian forces killed 18 people in Homs.

Activists said the army turned guns, tanks, and anti-aircraft weapons on residents in the restive central city.

Syria has not commented on the reports and it is hard for international media to verify such statements.

More than 1,700 people have died and tens of thousands of people have reportedly been arrested since the uprising against the Assad family's 41-year rule began in March.

In recent days large-scale operations by the army - notably in the central city of Hama and Deir al-Zour in the east - have drawn international condemnation, with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait recalling their ambassadors from Damascus.

But while Mr Assad has reiterated promises of political reform, he has remained adamant his government would continue to pursue "terrorist groups".

'Lost legitimacy'

The Commercial Bank of Syria and an affiliated bank are accused of financing the purchase and production of unconventional weapons programmes, as well as collaborating with a North Korean bank which is implicated in exporting ballistic missile equipment.

Syriatel is cited under a separate order that targets Syrian officials and others responsible for human rights abuses. US officials say its owner, Rami Makhluf - a cousin of President Assad - is one of the Syria's most powerful and corrupt insiders.

"We are taking aim at the financial infrastructure that is helping provide support to [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad and his regime's illicit activities," said Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen.

In May, President Barack Obama signed an executive order imposing targeted sanctions on Mr Assad and a number of high-ranking government officials.

In recent weeks, the US has hardened its tone on Syria, says the BBC's Marcus George in Washington. Amid increasing expectation that Mr Obama is to call explicitly on Mr Assad to hand over power, the White House said on Wednesday Syria would be better off without Mr Assad.

Ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on Wednesday evening to debate the crackdown, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice tweeted that sentiment, adding that she was encouraged by the "growing chorus of international condemnation".

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Media captionWhite House spokesperson Jay Carney: "Syria would be better off without President Assad"

But the UN has relatively few tools in its armoury, says BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Jonathan Marcus: Even though Russia has become more critical of Mr Assad's handling of the crisis, it is far from clear that there would be consensus on tough economic sanctions.

And, adds our correspondent, since the Security Council issued statement of concern on Syria a week ago, calling for those responsible to be held "accountable", the crackdown has actually intensified, reportedly killing 300 people.

'Stealing bodies'

The Syrian Revolution Co-ordination Union (SRCU), an opposition activist group, said 18 people were killed and more wounded in Wednesday's crackdown in Homs, 165 km (100 miles) north of the capital Damascus.

One activist said security forces had launched a huge operation, arresting people, searching their homes and firing on anyone trying to escape.

"The security forces stole the dead bodies from the streets and fired at a car that was carrying a wounded civilian causing it to stop, after which the tank destroyed the car by running over it," said Syrian activist group the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC) on its Facebook page.

On Wednesday, activists said tanks and armoured vehicles had also attacked a number of north-western towns and villages near the Turkish border, reportedly killing several people.

The restive central city of Hama was quiet on Wednesday after a 10-day operation by the Syrian army that killed dozens of opposition activists.

There was no visible army presence inside the city, said a BBC correspondent who visited Hama at the invitation of the Syrian authorities and saw dozens of armoured personnel carriers and tanks being carried away from the city on trucks.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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