Failure to put president Assad on the sanctions list underlines EU splits over the effectiveness of an embargo [AFP]
The European Union has imposed sanctions on 13 Syrian officials, including President Bashar al-Assad's brother and a wealthy and influential cousin, as the government continued its violent crackdown on protests and reportedly sent tanks into towns near the flashpoint city of Deraa.
The package of sanctions, announced on Tuesday, is aimed at pressuring Assad to halt violence against anti-government demonstrations that broke out in March. It targets various heads of security and intelligence agencies in the country and includes asset freezes, travel bans, and an arms embargo.
Maher al-Assad, the president's brother, commands the Republican Guard and is considered the second most powerful man in the country. The EU sanctions list describes him as the "principal overseer of violence against demonstrators."
EU governments decided not to target President Assad himself, and diplomats said punitive measures would be introduced gradually.
But an EU spokesperson told Al-Jazeera that Assad, who is grappling with the most serious challenge to his 11-year rule, could face sanctions if he does not stop the oppression of his people.
The failure to put him on the list underlined splits within the union over the effectiveness of such actions. Sources said Germany and Spain opposed adding the president, overriding strong support from France and others.
Rami Makhlouf, the president's cousin and the owner of Syria's largest mobile phone company, Syriatel, was also placed on the sanctions list. Makhlouf also owns several large construction and oil firms.
Makhlouf "bankrolls the regime, allowing violence against demonstrators," the EU's official journal said. The United States placed him under sanctions in 2008 due to corruption allegations.
The EU sanctions also target Mohammad Ibrahim Al-Chaar, the interior minister, Ali Mamlouk, the head of the General Intelligence Service, and Abd al-Fatah Qudsiyeh, who runs military intelligence.
Dozens reportedly killed in recent days
Though Assad's regime has claimed in recent days to be withdrawing its forces from some cities, the crackdown continued on Tuesday, activists said.
Heavy gunfire could be heard in Mouadhamiya, a southwestern suburb of the capital, Damascus, one witness told the Reuters news agency. "Scores of soldiers" manning checkpoints around the suburb were turning back those who attempted to enter on Tuesday, the witness said.
Telephone lines and internet access in Mouadhamiya have been cut off for the past two days, according to activists.
Security forces conducted more arrests in Baniyas, three days after entering the costal city, and soldiers backed by tanks entered towns around Daraa, the scene of some of the worst violence, witnesses said.
Troops entered Inkhil, Dael, Jassem, Sanamein and Nawa shortly after midnight, they said.
Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said water, electricity and telephone lines were cut off in Baniyas and that thousands of men, including youths, had been arrested.
The human rights group Amnesty International said on Tuesday that 48 people had been killed by Syrian security forces in the past four days, while the non-governmental National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria said that 757 civilians had been killed since protests first broke out in mid-March, while around 9,000 people arrested as a result of the unrest remain in custody.
Dorothy Parvaz, an Al Jazeera journalist, has not been heard from since she arrived in the capital, Damascus, on April 29.
A Syrian senior government official said in an interview with the New York Times, meanwhile, that she believes Assad's embattled government had ridden out the worst of the uprising.
"I hope we are witnessing the end of the story," Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Assad who often serves as a spokeswoman, told the US paper in an hour-long interview.
The Times reporter was allowed into the country for a few hours, the report added.