The Obama administration on Friday imposed financial penalties against three top Syrian officials, Syria's intelligence agency and Iran's Revolutionary Guard over the violent crackdown on demonstrators in Syria.
The penalties freeze any assets that the officials, including two relatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as Syria's General Intelligence Directorate and the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with them.
President Barack Obama authorized the action for what he said was repression and human rights abuses committed by Syrian authorities seeking to quell six weeks of protests. Activists say more than 500 people have been killed, dozens on Friday alone.
The White House said the penalties affect Maher Assad, Assad's brother and commander of the Syrian Army's Fourth Armored Division, which is accused of carrying out the worst atrocities in the southern city of Daraa; Assad cousin Atif Najib, the former head of the Political Security Directorate in Daraa Province; and intelligence chief Ali Mamluk.
"The United States strongly condemns the Syrian government's continued use of violence and intimidation against the Syrian people," according to the U.S. statement. "We call upon the Syrian regime and its supporters to refrain from further acts of violence and other human rights abuses against Syrian citizens seeking to express their political aspirations."
"We call on President Assad to change course now, and heed the calls of his own people," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
The penalties probably will have limited direct impact because none of the targets is believed to have any significant assets in U.S. banks. But officials said the move was aimed at sending a clear message to the Syrian people that those responsible for the crackdown are going to face consequences and no one in the Syrian leadership will be immune.
Although Assad himself is not among those mentioned Friday, officials said he could be named at a later date if the crackdown continues. In a related move, the Commerce Department said it was revoking licenses for the export to Syria of items relating to VIP aircraft used to transport senior Syrian officials.
Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee who had advocated greater engagement with Syria, welcomed the sanctions. He said they were part of necessary pressure on Assad to ensure he "understands that he must end the violence and embrace reforms."
"The administration's imposition of tough economic sanctions against the perpetrators of these grave human rights abuses is appropriate. It puts Syria's leaders on notice that decisions to kill unarmed civilians have consequences," he said in a statement.
Syria is already under U.S. sanctions because it's designated a "state sponsor of terrorism" by the State Department. The new ones extend the penalties to individuals.
Iran and its Revolutionary Guard Corps are under similar U.S. punishment. The officials said the new designation for the Revolutionary Guard would add another layer of penalties and make clear that Washington believes it is providing material support to help Syrian authorities with the crackdown.
Friday's announcement came as security forces opened fire on demonstrators trying to break an army blockade on the southern city of Daraa, killing as many as 62 people, including children, as thousands across Syria defied a protest ban, witnesses said.
The protesters in cities across Syria, including the capital of Damascus, called for Assad's ouster, with some of them chanting "We are not afraid!"
Mazen Darwish, a prominent activist who runs a group called the Syrian Media Center, confirmed at least 10 deaths in Daraa, the heart of the protests. Later, the human rights group Sawasiah said 24 had been killed, including two children.
A hospital near Daraa reported as having received 15 bullet-riddled bodies of slain villagers, a medical source told Reuters. The source at the hospital in Tafas, north west of the city, told Reuters 38 more villagers were injured. It was unknown whether it was from the same attack in Daraa.
At least 83 corpses, including those of women and children, were resting in Daraa's makeshift morgues. The victims had been stored killed during a four-day army attack, a human rights campaigner said on Friday.
"We counted 83 bodies so far, many stored in refrigerator trucks. Most of the bullets went through heads and chests, indicating that snipers most likely had done the shooting," Tamer al-Jahamani, a prominent lawyer in Daraa, told Reuters.
The death doll does not include the latest victims from Friday's unrest.
Jahamani said relatives were reporting scores missing since tank-backed army units stormed Daraa on Monday to crush the uprising for democracy that erupted in the city six weeks ago.
A witness in Daraa said residents there were staying home because the city has been under siege by the military since Monday, when thousands of soldiers backed by tanks and snipers stormed in.
People were too afraid even to venture out to mosques for prayers, the witness said.
"We are in our houses but our hearts are in the mosques," the witness said, speaking by satellite telephone and asking that his name not be published for fear of reprisals.
'Overthrow of the regime'
Demonstrations also erupted on Friday in the central cities of Homs and Hama, Banias on the Mediterranean coast, Qamishly in eastern Syria and Damascus suburbs, Reuters reported. Shots were heard in coastal Latakia and two small protests broke out in Damascus, witnesses said.
"The people want the overthrow of the regime!" demonstrators chanted in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, a witness told Reuters, defying violent repression in which 500 people have been killed since the nationwide protests broke out in Daraa last month.
Assad's regime has stepped up its deadly crackdown on protesters in recent days by unleashing the army along with snipers and tanks.
Assad has tried to crush the revolt — the gravest challenge to his family's 40-year ruling dynasty — and in the process has drawn international criticism and threats of sanctions from European countries and the United States.
Also on Friday, the top United Nations human rights body condemned Syria for using deadly force against peaceful protesters and launched an investigation into killings and other alleged crimes.