Syria, Iran in line of EU fire
The EU was set to tighten the noose on Syria and Iran on Monday when Europe mulls its next diplomatic moves to bolster change across North Africa and the Middle East.
Foreign ministers from the 27-state bloc will also look at ways forward in Libya as divisions emerge over an exit strategy, take a fresh look at the Middle East in the wake of President Barack Obama's new twist and look at aid to nations emerging from conflict.
As the death toll continued to mount in Syria, after over two months of protests, the European Union ministers for the first time were to add the name of President Bashar al-Assad to members of the regime targeted by a travel ban and assets freeze for involvement in the bloody crackdowns.
"The aim of the sanctions is to stop the violence and press Assad to agree to a process of reform, but not to force him to step down," said an EU diplomat of the new measures to be announced at the two-day talks.
Tightening the screws on the Assad regime, the EU has already slapped an arms embargo as well as a visa ban and assets freeze against the president's brother, four of his cousins, and others in his inner circle.
Increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in talks between world powers and Iran over its disputed nuclear programme, the ministers will also agree a "significant expansion" in sanctions against Tehran.
Diplomats said more than 100 Iranian firms suspected of helping Tehran dodge international sanctions will be targeted. Among companies blacklisted is the European-Iranian Trade Bank (EIH), a German-based Iranian-owned bank believed to be involved in the Islamic republic's disputed nuclear programme.
Turning to Libya, the ministers are to seek how to inch forward, getting rebels and Moamer Gathafi to agree to a ceasefire that would include a retreat by regime forces in order to launch a political dialogue.
"Member states currently are less united in the belief that Gathafi must go before a ceasefire or political talks can begin," said a diplomat. "But the rebel leadership will not budge on this point."
NATO aircraft have been pounding regime forces for two months, and the alliance has vowed to keep up the pressure until Gathafi stops attacking civilians and sends his troops back to their barracks.
An "important" statement is also expected in the wake of a landmark speech by Obama this week, saying a Palestinian state should be set up on the basis of the lines before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, as well as a recent unity deal between Mahmud Abbas' Palestinian Authority and its rival, Hamas.
"The US is moving closer to the EU position," said an EU diplomat. "We must now start to discuss a joint position on the issue of recognising a Palestinian state."
Ministers too will discuss ways of aiding the new pro-democracy regimes of Egypt and Tunisia, while looking at the turmoil in other parts of the Arab world, notably Bahrain and Yemen.
A final point will be Sudan, where the UN is demanding that Khartoum withdraw its troops from Abyei district after what the south branded an "invasion" by northern troops of the flashpoint border region.
"I condemn the violent incidents in Abyei during the last few days," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Sunday, pointing out that it violated the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between the two sides to end the civil war.