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'Friends of Syria' ramp up pressure on Assad

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Delegates from 56 nations working on sanctions against Syria, agreed Tuesday in Sofia to ramp up political pressure against Bashar al-Assad's regime in what officials called their strongest declaration yet.

The "Friends of Syria" international working group on sanctions, which includes Western and Arab countries, called "on all members of the international community, especially members of the United Nations Security Council, to take swift, responsible and resolute action... with a view of depriving the regime of resources and instruments essential to its campaign of violence."

With China and Russia blocking common Security Council action, the group's meeting in Sofia -- the sixth since its inception -- also encouraged members to increase unilateral sanctions to tighten the noose around the regime.

Speaking on the sidelines of the meeting, a Western official welcomed the statement as "the strongest" so far by the club which met five times last year, most recently in Tokyo in November.

The working group in a statement urged states to stop purchasing Syrian phosphates used in agriculture and "a considerable source of revenue for the Assad regime," as well as to halt the printing of Syrian currency.

It also repeated an earlier call for a full embargo on petroleum shipments from Syria.

The US has already banned the import of Syrian oil and gas products but the EU has not followed suit.

Among other pledges, delegates in Sofia vowed to help prevent the Assad regime acquiring technology used to "illegitimately disrupt communications, monitor or track individuals in Syria" and urged similar moves from companies.

Those who have provided financial support to Assad, including loans or credits, should "cease immediately," the group added, calling on financial institutions to keep an eye out for transactions potentially linked to the Syrian leader to prevent the flight of regime-related assets.

Institutions and companies in countries that have not joined the sanctions regime should "refrain from engaging in business with entities affiliated with the regime... or be exposed to a severe reputational risk," the "Friends of Syria" group warned.

The delegates declared their readiness, however, to work with a future Syrian government on the issue of its debt.

One Western official praised Tuesday's statement as "an important precursor" to a meeting of the main 11-nation "Friends of Syria" in Rome on Thursday, where US Secretary of State John Kerry was to hold talks with Syrian opposition members.

Another official expected the declaration will be "sending the message out to other governments" about the necessary steps to take against Assad's regime.

The Syrian conflict has already claimed more than 70,000 lives in the two years since Assad's crackdown on anti-regime protesters, leaving another two million people internally displaced and forcing 870,000 refugees to flee to neighbouring states.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130226/friends-syria-ramp-pressure-assad