Middle East

Syria unrest: UK, France and Italy press for sanctions

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Media captionThe BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones: "The flow of information from protesters... has slowed right down"

European countries have called for "strong measures" to halt repression in Syria, as its government steps up a campaign against peaceful protests.

In a joint statement, France and Italy urged the EU and UN to put pressure on Syria to end its crackdown.

The UK said it was discussing measures with "an impact on the regime". The US is also considering sanctions against Damascus.

The UN Security Council is meeting to discuss a statement on the unrest.

Proposed by the UK, France, Germany and Portugal, the draft statement condemns the deadly violence against Syrian civilians and backs a call made by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for a "transparent" independent investigation into deaths in the protests.

The statement was being discussed behind closed doors in New York, where Mr Ban said he briefed members on the situation in North Africa.

He told reporters the council was watching events in Syria with increasingly grave concern and he "condemned utterly" the violence against peaceful demonstrators and the use of tanks and live fire.

Mr Ban said the council's discussions were continuing and that more information about them would be available on Wednesday.

'Reform not repression'

More gunfire has been heard in the city of Deraa on Tuesday, a day after troops and tanks were deployed.

Deraa has been at the centre of protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

But there have been numerous reports of a crackdown and arrests around Syria in recent days, despite the lifting of an emergency law last week.

Syria's security forces have shot dead more than 400 civilians in their campaign to crush the month-long pro-democracy protests, according to Sawasiah, a Syrian human rights organisation.

It has called on the UN Security Council to start proceedings against Syrian officials in the International Criminal Court.

Speaking at a joint news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said France and Italy were calling for an end to violence.

"We issue a strong call on the authorities in Damascus to end the violent repression," he said.

But Mr Sarkozy said France would not intervene in Syria without a Security Council resolution.

The UK reiterated its call for an end to the violence.

"This violent repression must stop. President Assad should order his authorities to show restraint and to respond to the legitimate demands of his people with immediate and genuine reform, not with brutal repression," Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons.

He said the UK was in discussions with its EU allies and others about the possibility of measures, including sanctions, "that will have an impact on the regime" if the crackdown on protesters continued.

Western governments are struggling to find levers with which to influence Mr Assad, says BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Jonathan Marcus. The US already has wide-ranging sanctions against Syria and is now talking about additional targeted financial measures against named individuals.

European pressure may be more significant, adds our correspondent, as it is the Europeans who have been in the vanguard of bringing Syria in from the cold in both diplomatic and economic terms.

Meanwhile, the UK and the US are both advising their nationals not to travel to Syria, saying that those already in the country should leave.

The US says some non-essential embassy staff and all embassy dependants will be leaving.

International concern

The BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones, in neighbouring Lebanon, says the Syrian government disputes the Western view that the demonstrations have been non-violent.

In a statement carried by the official news agency, it said it had sent troops to several cities on the request of citizens who were worried about "armed extremists".

Arrests were made and those people would be processed through the civil courts, the government statement added, following the lifting of emergency laws last week.

The agency said 15 soldiers and security personnel were killed in fighting on Monday against what it called armed criminal gangs.

Nadim Houry, Beirut director of Human Rights Watch, said that with electricity and phone lines cut from Deraa and other areas, it was becoming much harder to get information out of Syria.

"A new phase started on Friday morning - when security forces killed protesters in 14 towns and cities - and it continued on Saturday and Sunday," Mr Houry told the BBC.

"The government has clearly decided to go for a military-centred response to the protests in an attempt to crush them and reinstate the wall of fear that protesters had started breaking down in some parts of Syria."

Our correspondent says communication with Syria is virtually impossible, though there are reports of continuing clashes as the government tries to re-establish control of Deraa.

Gunfire can be heard on video footage which has been put on the internet and is said to have been filmed on Tuesday. Witnesses have also reported sporadic gunfire in the city.

On Monday witnesses said the army had advanced into Deraa, using several tanks to support thousands of troops. Security forces also reportedly opened fire in a suburb of Damascus.

"The bullets continue against the people, but we are resisting," local activist Abazid Abdullah told AFP news agency.

One Damascus resident said it was currently calm in the capital, but warned that the crackdown on protests would be counter-productive.

"If the Syrian regime thinks that by killing the people, they will stop the people going out to the streets, they are making a big mistake," the resident told the BBC.

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