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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union tightened an arms embargo on Syria and expanded other sanctions on Monday as the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels escalated towards civil war.
The new embargo rules require EU countries to search planes and ships if they have "reasonable grounds" to suspect they are carrying arms, dual-use goods or equipment used for repression to Syria.
"These sanctions are important because they will allow ships to be examined to see what cargo they're carrying, and that will prevent, I hope, any arms reaching Syria," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said before the meeting in Brussels where foreign ministers agreed the measures.
The EU decision sharpens differences with Russia which has blocked Western moves to get a United Nations Security Council resolution threatening Syria with sanctions.
All 27 EU countries must enforce the sanctions, including Cyprus which some Western diplomats suspect is used by Russia as a shipment route to supply arms to Assad, something Cyprus's President Demetris Christofias has dismissed as "fairy tales".
The tighter EU sanctions could also make it more difficult to supply weapons to Assad's opponents. U.S. intelligence officials say weapons funded by sympathizers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar are crossing the Lebanese border to the rebels.
The new sanctions include a ban the Syrian national airline which will prevent the flag carrier landing at EU airports, although it will be able to fly over EU countries and make emergency stops.
Ministers added 26 people, mostly military officials, to a list of those subject to EU travel bans and asset freezes. The EU had already imposed sanctions on 49 organizations and 129 people in Syria.
With violence escalating, Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said the presence of chemicals weapons in Syria was a key concern.
"The turmoil could also expand to the stocks of chemical weapons," he said. "The sense of urgency is only on the increase. The stocks of chemical weapons are part of the story."
Some foreign ministers said the time had come to start thinking about how to help a post-Assad Syria.
"The regime will fall, but it will leave Syria in a difficult situation," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. "We must be ... prepared to help and assist in economic ways ... We should concentrate more of our attention on the day after."
Spanish foreign minister Gonzalo de Benito said: "We must talk about the reconstruction of the country because it is easy to imagine the level of destruction there is in the infrastructure, in the Syrian economy as a whole."
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Robin Pomeroy