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US slams Syria with fresh sanctions on banks, cellphone firm

The Obama administration is slapping sanctions on one of Syria's biggest banks and its largest cellphone operator as it boosts pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to stop the brutal suppression of protests.
/ Source: news services

The Obama administration on Wednesday slapped sanctions on one of Syria's biggest banks and its largest cellphone operator, boosting pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to stop the brutal suppression of pro-reform demonstrations.

The Treasury Department announced Wednesday that it has added the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, and mobile phone company Syriatel to a financial blacklist. The sanctions freeze any assets the firms may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with them.

Previous U.S. sanctions have targeted the Syrian president and his brother Mahir al-Assad, other top government officials and security forces.

The step comes as the administration prepares for the first time to call explicitly for Assad to step down amid his regime's increasingly repressive crackdown on opponents.

The United Nations Security Council was also due to continue debate on Syria later on Wednesday.

Human rights activists estimate Assad's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations over the past five months has left more than 1,600 people dead, putting pressure on the United States to do what it can to force Assad out.

So far, President Barack Obama has stopped short of calling on Assad to leave power, though on Monday it welcomed an Arab League statement condemning Syria as further sign that the world is repulsed by Assad's actions.

However, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday he expected the Syrian government to start reforms within 15 days, following talks between the two countries in which Turkey urged Assad to stop all violence and bloodshed.

"Turkey's message to Assad is very clear: stop all kinds of violence and bloodshed," Erdogan said.

Assaults continued Wednesday
Syrian tanks swept into two towns near the Turkish border on Wednesday despite international demands to end the military crackdown.

Syria said the army pulled out of the central city of Hama after a 10-day assault on a symbolic center of protest against Assad's 11-year rule, but tank attacks in towns north of Hama killed a woman and injured 13 people, an activist group said.

In Deir al-Zor, another Sunni Muslim bastion of dissent toward Assad's minority Alawite rule, residents reported heavy gunfire as troops deployed across the eastern city, making arrests and spraying pro-Assad slogans on buildings.

Syria has barred most independent media since the unrest began, making it hard to verify conflicting reports by activists, residents and officials.

Already under Western sanctions targeting him and his top officials, Assad faces growing pressure to curb the bloodshed after three regional powers publicly called for change this week, leaving Iran as Syria's only staunch remaining ally.

Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia condemned the violence and recalled its ambassador, while Egypt's new government, which took office after Hosni Mubarak's overthrow in February, said Syria was nearing "the point of no return."

On Tuesday Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu held more than three hours of talks with Assad to seek an end to the violence, swift elections and dialogue with the opposition.

In response Assad said Syria "will not relent in pursuing terrorist groups in order to protect the stability of the country and security of the citizens ... but is also determined to continue reforms," Syria's state news agency said.

France also voiced dissatisfaction. "The time for delaying tactics is up. The Syrian authorities must respond to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Christine Fages said.

Army offensive
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least one woman was killed and 13 people were wounded when 12 tanks and armored vehicles, along with 10 large buses full of troops, entered the towns of Taftanaz and Sermin, around 30 km (19 miles) from the border with Turkey.

In nearby Binnish, rights campaigners said Syrian forces killed four villagers on Tuesday.

"Daily protests in the region have been unabated since the start of Ramadan (on Aug. 1)," a local resident, who gave his name only as Ali, told Reuters by phone.

In Deir al-Zor, witnesses said on Wednesday tanks and armored vehicles had spread across the city, and that residents had reversed earlier pledges to resist any army assault by force.

"The inhabitants of Deir al-Zor have taken a collective decision not to resist, so as not to give excuses to the authorities to spread their propaganda about terrorists and armed groups," one resident said.

"We are hearing the sound of machineguns and shells," he said, adding he heard that soldiers and military intelligence officers had a list of 364 activists they were hunting.

He also said he saw troops spraying slogans on houses such as "Assad or no one," "The people want the army to come in."

On Tuesday night, he said, people had offered to share fruit and water with soldiers at one of the main roundabouts in the city. "A captain jumped from an APC and told soldiers not to accept anything. He then fired about 30 bullets in the air from his AK-47 in the air to disperse the crowd," the resident said.

Authorities have denied that any Deir al-Zor assault took place. They say they have faced attacks since the protests erupted, blaming armed saboteurs for civilian deaths.

Hama and Deir al-Zor are populated mostly by majority Sunnis and the crackdowns there resonate with their co-religionists who predominate in the Middle East and govern most Arab countries.