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U.S., EU expected to call for Assad to go: sources
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration is expected to call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave power, an appeal that could come as early as Thursday and that would be echoed by the European Union, sources said on Wednesday.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States also may lay out plans to impose additional U.S. sanctions on Syria, whose government has engaged in a brutal crackdown against protesters seeking an end to the 41-year rule by Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad.
The sources said that the U.S. appeal could come on Thursday and would quickly be followed by similar calls from others, notably the EU.
Washington has been edging closer to an explicit call for Assad to go since Syrian protesters began to demonstrate against his rule in March, inspired by revolts that toppled autocratic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year.
The United States held off initially in hopes that Assad might reverse course and embrace democratic reforms, a possibility that U.S. officials appear to have given up on.
As recently as last week, however, U.S. officials said U.S. President Barack Obama was leaning toward an explicit call for Assad's departure but they made clear they wanted other nations to make a similar appeal.
The expected U.S. and European Union action comes as the United Nations' human rights chief is expected to propose on Thursday that Syria's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters be referred to the International Criminal Court.
The United Nations said late on Wednesday that al-Assad told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that military and police operations against protesters had stopped.
In a phone call with Assad, Ban "expressed alarm at the latest reports of continued widespread violations of human rights and excessive use of force by Syrian security forces against civilians across Syria, including in the Al Ramel district of Lattakia, home to several thousands of Palestinian refugees," the United Nations said in a statement.
Also on Wednesday, the State Department said it was imposing travel restrictions on Syrian diplomats in the United States in response to similar restrictions put on U.S. diplomats in Damascus. Syrian diplomats must ask for permission seven days in advance to travel outside the Washington, D.C., area.
The government's crackdown in Syria is estimated to have killed at least 2,000 civilians. Authorities appear to have accelerated their efforts to crush the protests in the past several weeks.
Syrian troops held hundreds of people in a stadium in the port city of Latakia on Wednesday, residents said. They said Syrian forces raided houses in a Sunni area of the besieged city, arresting hundreds of people and taking them to a stadium after a four-day tank assault to crush protests.
Latakia is of particular significance to Assad, who is from Syria's minority Alawite community. Assad comes from a village to the southeast, where his father is buried, and his family, along with friends, control Latakia's port and its finances.
In an interview with the CBS Evening News last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear the United States wanted other nations to also demand Assad's departure and to take concrete actions against the Assad regime.
The United States has been "very clear" in its statements about al-Assad's loss of legitimacy, Clinton said in the interview. She said she wanted Europe and China to "take steps with us" against Syria.
Obama consulted on Saturday with Saudi King Abdullah and British Prime Minister David Cameron. In both cases, the first specific topic mentioned in the White House descriptions of the calls was Syria.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn and Warren Strobel; Editing by Bill Trott)
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