US freezes assets of Syrian businessman

WASHINGTON, Feb 21 (Reuters) - The United States froze the assets of wealthy Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf on Thursday under new economic sanctions aimed at stepping up pressure against Damascus, saying Makhlouf benefited from corruption in the Syrian government.

The Treasury Department designated Rami Makhlouf under an expansion of U.S. economic sanctions against Syria announced Feb. 13 by President George W. Bush. The designation freezes Makhlouf's assets under U.S. jurisdiction and forbids U.S. people or entities from doing business with him.

Makhlouf is a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad and is considered Syria's most powerful businessman. The Syrian government this year granted a license to an airline, Syria Pearl, in which Makhlouf is a major shareholder through a company called Cham Holding.

The Treasury Department said in a statement that Makhlouf had used intimidation and his close ties to the Assad regime to obtain improper business advantages.

"The (Assad) regime's cronyism and corruption has a corrosive effect, disadvantaging innocent Syrian businessmen and entrenching a regime that pursues oppressive and destabilizing policies," said Stuart Levey, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

The United States says Syria is pursuing disruptive activities in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.

Damascus has repeatedly denied the allegations by Washington. (Reporting by Mark Felsenthal, editing by Jackie Frank)