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EU bans imports of Syrian oil

In joint statement, European Union countries agree to embargo on oil industry over violence against pro-democracy protesters

European Union governments have agreed to ban imports of Syrian oil and extended sanctions to seven new Syrian individuals and bodies to intensify pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The US, the EU and other western powers want Assad to end a violent five-month-old crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that the United Nations says has killed 2,000 civilians. But Assad shows no sign of heeding their calls for him to step down.

The EU has already banned Europeans from doing business with dozens of Syrian officials, government institutions and military-linked firms tied to the violence, but those measures seem to have had little influence on Assad’s policy. Friday’s steps are the first time the EU has targeted Syrian industry and the key oil sector, but analysts say the sanctions, which do not go as far as the investment ban imposed by the US last month, may have only a limited impact on Assad’s access to funds.

“In view of the gravity of the situation in Syria, the council today further tightened the EU’s sanctions against that country,” EU governments said in a statement.

“The prohibition concerns purchase, import and transport of oil and other petroleum products from Syria,” they said. The decision also expanded the list of people and entities subject to EU travel bans and asset freezes by seven, including four individuals.

The measures goes into effect on Saturday. But Italy has won an exemption on existing contracts, which can be fulfilled until 15 November, underscoring divisions in Europe over energy sanctions which have slowed the implementation of economic measures against Assad.

Italy defended its demand for a grace period, with its foreign minister, Franco Frattini, saying Italian firms needed time to adapt. “It is a technical request,” Frattini told reporters. “Given that Italy imports 30% of all EU imports from Syria, we need … some weeks to comply with these sanctions, which we support and which obviously Italy had always called for.”

Dutch foreign minister Uri Rosenthal argued that the sanctions would apply real pressure. “They will go straight to the heart of the regime. This will squeeze the regime,” he said, but added that what was required was a UN resolution and a tough stance towards Assad by the Arab League.

Firms such as Anglo-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell and France’s Total are significant investors in Syria.

EU countries are the main buyers of Syrian oil exports, but industry sources say that even when imports to Europe are blocked, European companies will continue operating within Syria until the EU imposes sanctions on all co-operation with Syrian energy firms.

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