EU agrees on Syrian oil ban as Assad continues brutal crackdown on protesters


The European Union reached an agreement in principle Monday to ban oil imports from Syria, tightening the noose on President Bashar al-Assad, who has refused to heed international and regional calls for an end to his brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters.

“There is a political consensus on a European embargo of imports of Syrian petroleum products,” a diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The new sanctions were backed by all representatives at a meeting of experts from the 27-nation bloc in Brussels, another diplomat said.

Individual EU governments are expected to give their final approval by the end of the week, the diplomat said.

The EU buys 95 percent of the oil Syria exports, representing nearly one-third of government receipts, according to diplomats.

The latest move by the European Union came as Syrian security forces in armored vehicles besieged the town of Ruston, outside of Homs, on Monday in response to reports that a military unit defected in the area, Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.

At least 40 light tanks and armored vehicles, and 20 buses of troops and military intelligence, deployed at 5:30 a.m. at the highway entrance to Ruston, 20 km (12 miles) north of the city of Homs, and began firing heavy machine guns at the town,
two residents said, according to Reuters.

“The tanks deployed at both banks of the highway, which remained open, and fired long bursts from their machine guns at Ruston,” one of the residents, who gave his name as Raed, told Reuters by phone.

He said defections began in the town when it was stormed by tanks three months ago to crush large street protests against Assad in an assault that killed dozens of civilians.

Ruston, situated near the main highway leading to Turkey, is traditionally a reservoir of recruits for the mostly Sunni rank-and-file army dominated by officers from Syria’s Alawite minority sect and effectively commanded by Assad's younger brother Maher.

Mustafa Tlas, who was Syria’s defense minister for three decades before retiring in 2006, hails from Ruston.

In Damascus, dozens of soldiers also defected and fled into al-Ghouta, an area of farmland, after pro-Assad forces fired at a large crowd of demonstrators near the suburb of Harasta to prevent them from marching on the centre of the capital, residents said.

“The army has been firing heavy machine guns throughout the night at al-Ghouta and they were being met with response from smaller rifles,” a resident of Harasta told Reuters by phone.

A statement published on the internet by the Free Officers, a group that says it represents defectors, said “large defections” occurred in Harasta and that security forces and shabbiha loyal to Assad were chasing the defectors.

It was the first reported defection near the capital, where Assad’s core forces are based.

“The younger conscripts who defect mainly go back to their town and villages and hide. We have seen more experienced defectors fighting back in the south, in Idlib, and around Damascus,” said an activist, who gave his name as Abu Khaled.

Meanwhile, security forces broke up a sit-in by hundreds of people in front of the Badr Mosque in Malki, near the presidential palace in the center of Damascus, overnight on Monday.

In other regions, military and security forces stormed the villages of Deir Ezzor and Bokamal, killing one child and wounding dozens of residents, the coordination committees said. The forces also shot at protesters in the Daraa’s cities of Inkhel, Nawa and Daeel, in Damascus suburbs including Douma and Kesweh, and in Deir Ezzor, Idlib and several neighborhoods in Homs.

The latest demonstrations in Damascus were triggered in part by an attack on Saturday by Assad's forces on a popular cleric, Osama al-Rifai. He was treated with several stitches to his head after the forces stormed al-Rifai mosque complex in the Kfar Sousa district of the capital, home to the secret police headquarters, to prevent protesters from assembling.