Clinton: U.S. looking to raise pressure on Syria

NUUK, Greenland Thu May 12, 2011 2:46pm EDT

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NUUK, Greenland (Reuters) - Washington and its allies will hold Syria to account for "brutal reprisals" against protesters, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday, but stopped short of saying President Bashar al-Assad should go.

Clinton, in Greenland for talks with foreign ministers from other countries with Arctic territory, said the United States and its allies were looking for ways to raise pressure on Assad to agree to democratic reforms to end a seven-week uprising.

"President Assad faces increasing isolation and we will continue to work with our international partners in the EU and elsewhere on additional steps to hold Syria responsible for its gross human rights abuses," she said.

"I think it's fair to say that we're going to hold the Syrian government accountable."

The Obama administration has been sharply criticized by human rights groups and others for what they say has been a tepid response to Syria's unrest following much stronger U.S. support for popular uprisings in Egypt and Libya.

The United States, like Europe, has imposed economic sanctions on a handful of senior Syrian officials deemed most responsible for the violence, not yet including Assad himself.

The response contrasts notably with Libya, where U.S. and European forces are carrying out air strikes they say will not end until leader Muammar Gaddafi leaves power.

Asked if Assad had lost his legitimacy to lead Syria, Clinton demurred but said the United States had watched with "great consternation and concern as events have unfolded under his leadership."

"Despite overwhelming international condemnation, the Syrian government continues to exact brutal reprisals against its own citizens," she said, citing unlawful detention, torture, and denial of medical care to wounded persons.

Syrian forces spread through southern towns Thursday and tightened their grip on two other cities, broadening a military crackdown on protests against Assad's government.

Clinton indicated the United States could expand sanctions in concert with allies. The European Union listed 13 Syrian officials on a sanctions list Tuesday, including a brother of Assad but not Assad himself. Diplomats say the aim is to introduce punitive measures gradually.

"We are working with our international partners to make as strong a case as possible to sanction those who are leading and implementing the policies that are coming from the government," Clinton said.

Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen, speaking at an appearance with Clinton in Greenland, said the Europeans too were looking at tougher measures.

"We're calling for the Syrian leadership to actually deliver on the promises that they've made...about political reforms and national dialogue," Espersen said. "If the Syrian leadership does not deliver on reform, we are prepared to tighten the sanctions against the Syrian regime."

(Editing by Peter Graff)

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