BEIRUT The European Union slapped sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's powerful mother and wife on Friday, targeting his inner circle in an effort to force Syria to end its repression of a year-long uprising.
The EU's latest round of sanctions hit 10 other prominent personalities, including Assad's sister and sister-in-law, banning them from visiting the 27-nation bloc, freezing their assets and stopping them from shopping with European firms.
"With this new listing we are striking at the heart of the Assad clan, sending out a loud and clear message to Mr. Assad: he should step down," said Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal after fellow ministers backed the move at a meeting in Brussels.
The decision came on a day of renewed violence across Syria, with the army raining mortar rounds into the rebellious city of Homs, killing up to 11 civilians, opposition supporters said.
Live television feeds from around Syria showed a slew of anti-Assad rallies, including in the Damascus district of Barzeh, in the northwestern city of Hama, in Qamishli in the Kurdish east, and in the southern province of Deraa.
"Damascus here we come," read several placards held up by the relatively small crowds. Activists said eight people were wounded after demonstrations near five Damascus mosques were broken up by security forces.
On the diplomatic front, the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who is leading international efforts to stop the relentless mayhem, planned to travel to Moscow and Beijing this weekend for talks on the crisis, his spokesman said.
Russia and China have resisted Western and Arab demands that Assad stand down and have vetoed two U.N. resolutions highly critical of Damascus. However, they supported a Security Council statement this week backing Annan's peace initiative, in a move seen as a sign they were toughening their stance on Syria.
Nevertheless, both Russia and China voted against a call by the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday to extend a probe into abuses by Syrian forces, arguing it was too one-sided.
The motion passed regardless, with 41 of the forum's 47 members voting in favor of the text, which said the perpetrators of the brutality had to be brought to justice.
GLAMOUR AND POWER
More than 8,000 people have died in the rebellion, according to U.N. figures, but Western powers have ruled out military intervention in such a sensitive part of the world, putting the emphasis instead on economic sanctions and diplomacy.
The new EU sanctions build on 12 previous rounds of sanctions aimed at isolating Assad, including an arms embargo and a ban on importing Syrian oil to the European Union.
At first sight they appear largely symbolic, but show the West is ready to broaden its net in its effort to isolate Assad.
A former investment banker, Assad's wife Asma cultivated the image of a glamorous yet serious-minded woman with Western values who was meant to humanize the isolated Assad family
But that image has crumbled over the past year, and she has stood resolutely by her husband's side, describing herself as "the real dictator" in an email published by Britain's Guardian newspaper last week.
Assad's mother, Anisa Makhlouf, has a lower profile than the Asma but opposition figures say she wields greater influence within the dynasty which has ruled Syria for four decades.
Asma's ancestral home is Homs, now a symbol of the revolt which has been subjected to particularly fierce army attack. Video from the city on Friday showed plumes of smoke rising from residential areas after being hit by apparent mortar fire.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and has a network of contacts in Syria, said the army clashed with defectors in the north-eastern town of Azaz, on the border with Turkey. Three soldiers and one defector were killed as the army fired heavy machineguns and mortar rounds, it said.
It said three had died in clashes in Deraa, close to Jordan.
Other activists working for the Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported 32 deaths on Friday around the country. They also said rebels had captured 17 members of the security forces in the northwestern Idlib province.
It is impossible to verify reports from Syria because authorities have denied access to independent journalists.
Syria has said 3,000 members of the security forces have died in the uprising, which Damascus blames on terrorist gangs and foreign interference.
The violence has displaced 230,000 people and aid groups have pressed Syria to allow humanitarian access to the worst affected areas.
Relief teams from the International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent have delivered aid to 9,000 people in the Syrian provinces of Homs and Idlib in recent days, the ICRC said on Friday.
ANNAN REVIEWING SITUATION
Annan has drawn up a six-point plan to end the unrest, including a demand for a ceasefire, political dialogue and full access for aid agencies. It also says the army should stop using heavy weapons in populated areas and pull troops back.
He sent five experts to Damascus earlier this week to discuss the deployment of international monitors -- something Assad has resisted. The team has now left Syria and there was no immediate word if they had made any progress.
"Mr. Annan and his team are currently studying the Syrian responses carefully, and negotiations with Damascus continue," his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in a statement from Geneva.
Asked whether Annan would be returning to Damascus for talks with Assad, Fawzi told a news briefing: "He will at some point decide to go back, but this is not the time yet."
Instead he will head to Russia and China, no doubt hoping to persuade them to bring their influence to bear on Syria.
Unlike the Arab League and Western countries, Annan has not explicitly called for Assad to step down, talking only about the need for dialogue and political transition.
Russia has historically close ties to Syria, which is home to its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union. But analysts believe Moscow is starting to hedge its bets about Assad's fate and is positioning itself for his possible fall.