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EU officials: Sanctions against Syria are helping, but more needed from Russia, China
COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) ' Sanctions against Syria appear to be working and defections by high-level officials show that President Bashar Assad's regime is cracking, European leaders said Friday.
EU foreign ministers at an informal meeting in Copenhagen said they stood united against Assad's bloody crackdown, which the U.N. says has left more than 7,500 people dead, but appealed to Russia and China to condemn the regime's actions.
The bloc's priority is to stop Syria from "descending into full-scale sectarian war" by focusing on the mission there by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
Annan, who has been appointed joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, has called for a dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition and is likely to meet with Assad during a visit to Damascus on Saturday.
"We are searching truly for a political solution," said Bildt. "Whether that is possible or not remains to be seen."
On Thursday, Abdo Husameddine, Syria's deputy oil minister, defected from the regime and became the highest-ranking civilian official to join the opposition, warning his countrymen to "abandon this sinking ship."
On Friday, Yusuf Guler, the administrator for the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, told Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency that two Syrian generals, a colonel and two sergeants defected from the Syrian army and crossed into neighboring Turkey. They were in a group of some 234 Syrians who had fled into the country since Thursday, he said.
"It is very good news that clearly high-ranking state and military officials are increasingly turning away from the Assad regime," Germany's Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, said in Berlin before leaving for the meeting in the Danish capital.
"The process of disintegration of the Assad regime has begun; the signs of erosion will continue. No country can be led in the long term with cruelty and repression," he said.
Denmark's Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal, whose country chairs the rotating EU presidency, said strong sanctions against Syria appear to be working, but insisted the bloc must "keep the pressure on Russia and China to play their responsible part of the world society."
In February, the EU froze the assets of seven Syrian government officials and the country's central bank. The bloc also banned the purchase of gold, precious metals and diamonds from Syria, and banned Syrian cargo flights from the European Union. It was the 12th round of sanctions the EU had imposed on Syria.
In the previous 11 rounds, the EU had frozen the assets of more 100 people and 38 organizations, and worked to cut the country's supply of equipment for its oil and gas sectors.
Speaking in general terms about sanctions, Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said that punitive measures should be aimed as much as possible at a country's leaders.
"We have seen them work in Libya, we have seen them work with regard to other countries in the world, and we use them now in relation to Iran," Rosenthal said. "I think when you have sanctions that are targeted to actually inflict the heart of the regime, without having the population suffer more than it already suffers, then these sanctions can indeed be very effective."
Meanwhile, the U.N. humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, told reporters in Ankara that Syria has agreed to a joint mission to assess the country's humanitarian needs.
"While this is a necessary first step, it remains essential that a robust and regular arrangement be put in place, which allows humanitarian organizations unhindered access to evacuate the wounded and deliver desperately needed supplies," Amos said after having toured Syrian refugee camps along the Turkish-Syrian border and arriving in Turkey after a two-day visit to Syria.
China and Russia, which has significant arms sales in Syria, have been widely criticized for vetoing two U.N. resolutions that would have condemned the crackdown and called for Assad to step down.
In Beijing, China announced on Friday that it is sending an envoy to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France to explain Beijing's proposal for a cease-fire in Syria.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a regular news briefing that Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister Zhang Ming will meet with Arab League leaders during the seven-day trip, which begins Sunday.
China has proposed calling for an immediate cease-fire in Syria and talks by all parties, but it opposes any intervention by outside forces.
Associated Press Writers Don Melvin contributed from Brussels, Geir Moulson from Berlin and Suzan Fraser from Ankara.