BRUSSELS (AP) — A senior EU official say the bloc will soon impose harsher sanctions against Syria as it seeks to weaken the regime and end President Bashar Assad's crackdown against political opponents.
The official said Wednesday the new measures may include bans on the import of Syrian phosphates, on commercial flights between Syria and Europe, and on financial transactions with the country's central bank.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with EU rules, said some measures would be adopted at the EU foreign ministers meeting on Feb. 27, but it's not yet clear which.
The EU has already banned oil imports from Syria, and imposed visa bans and asset freezes against government officials and military and police officers.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad wants his vice president to hold talks with the opposition groups, Russia's foreign minister said, as activists reported that dozens died Wednesday in government bombings of cities and villages across Syria.
A day after holding talks with Assad in an emergency meeting in Damascus, Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that the Syrian leader has "delegated the responsibility of holding such a dialogue to Vice President (Farouk) al-Sharaa."
Lavrov blamed both Assad's regime and opposition forces for instigating the violence that has killed thousands of people since March. "On both sides there are people that aim at an armed confrontation, not a dialogue," he said.
His comments came as Syrian troops bombed residential neighborhoods in the central city of Homs, the northern province of Idlib, southern region of Daraa and the mountain town of Zabadani, in what activists say is the regime's final push to retake areas controlled by the rebels.
Activists said at least 50 people died in Wednesday's shelling of Homs, which has been under a relentless regime offensive for the past five days. Hundreds are believed to have been killed there since Saturday.
Syria's state-run TV reported that gunmen fired mortar rounds at the oil refinery in Homs, one of two in Syria, setting two fuel tankers on fire.
Assad's regime is becoming increasingly isolated over its bloody crackdown on dissent. Five European countries and six Arab Gulf nations have pulled their ambassadors out of Damascus, and the U.S. has closed its embassy in Syria. Germany, whose envoy left Syria this month, also said he would not be replaced.
Though increasingly ostracized internationally, the Syrian president was bolstered by Tuesday's visit from Lavrov and Russia's intelligence chief, Mikhail Fradkov. During the talks, the Russians pushed for a solution to the Syrian crisis that would include reforms by the regime and a dialogue with the opposition — but not for Assad to step down.
Assad said Syria was determined to hold a national dialogue with the opposition and independent figures, and that his government was "ready to cooperate with any effort that boosts stability in Syria," according to state news agency SANA.
The Syrian opposition rejects any talks with the regime and says they accept nothing less than Assad's departure.
On Saturday, Russia and China blocked a Western- and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolution supporting calls for Assad to hand over some powers to his vice president as a way to defuse the 11-month-old crisis.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 50 people were killed in Wednesday's shelling of the Homs neighborhoods of Bayadah, Baba Amr, Khaldiyeh and Karm el-Zeytoun. The group also said that 23 homes were heavily damaged in Baba Amr alone.
Omar Shaker, an activist in Baba Amr, said his neighborhood was under "very intense shelling" by tanks, mortars, artilleries and heavy machine guns. Shaker added that he counted five bodies Wednesday in his district.
"The situation is dire. We are short of food, water and medical aid. Doctors have collapsed after treating the wounded without rest for five days," Shaker said. "We want Lavrov to come and spend a night in Homs to see what we have been passing through."
The activist urged the international community to set up a safe passage so that women and children can leave volatile areas of Homs.
The head of the Observatory, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said the regime was trying "exhaust rebels in preparation for storming neighborhoods."
The Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, also reported intense clashes between troops loyal to Assad and defectors on Wednesday in the province of Idlib, bordering Turkey. The Observatory said at least five soldiers were killed in the clashes.
The LCC said troops backed by tanks were also shelling and pushing forward in the southern village of Tseel in the Daraa province that borders Jordan. The group also said that rebel-controlled Zabadani, west of Damascus, was subjected to intense shelling since the early hours of Wednesday.
The U.N. estimates the government crackdown has killed more than 5,400 people since March, making Syria's conflict one of the deadliest of the Arab Spring.
Hundreds more are believed to have died since the U.N. released that figure in January, but the chaos in the country has made it impossible for the world body to update its figures.
Associated Press writer Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report from Moscow.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at http://twitter.com/bmroue