BEIRUT (Reuters) - At least 20 people were killed in renewed fighting in Syria on Thursday, an activist group said, and the European Union imposed sanctions on the country’s biggest state bank which bankers say holds much of the country’s foreign reserves.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 10 civilians were killed in the northern province of Idlib when soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad stormed the town of Binish and fought battles with gunmen and army deserters.
In the southern province of Deraa, where the six-month wave of protests against Assad first erupted, six soldiers and two army deserters were killed in a clash in the town of Haara, alongside one civilian, the group said. Another soldier was killed in Homs.
The United Nations says 2,900 people have been killed in Assad’s crackdown on protesters. The United States and Europe have imposed a sanctions on Syrian oil exports and several businesses, and pushed — so far in vain — for U.N. sanctions.
Diplomats in Brussels said the European Union agreed on Thursday to add to its sanctions list the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria which bankers say holds much of Syria’s foreign reserves, estimated at $17 billion at the start of the year.
Washington imposed sanctions on the bank in August.
The global campaign groups Avaaz welcomed the move. “It effectively shuts off Assad’s business dealings in Europe and is critical to cutting off his bloody pay roll for the brutal reign of terror,” Avaaz campaign director Alice Jay said.
An EU statement, which did not identify the bank, said the 27-nation bloc sought to ensure that legitimate trade was affected as little as possible.
“Our measures are not aimed at the Syrian people, but aim to deprive the regime of financial revenues and the support base necessary to maintain the repression,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.
Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed armed groups who it says have killed 1,100 people. Authorities have barred most foreign media, making it difficult to verify accounts by activists and officials.
Russia and China, which blocked Western efforts to pass a United Nations resolution which could have paved the way toward U.N. sanctions, say they want to prevent foreign intervention in Syria but have called on Assad to speed up reform.
Most of the violence in recent days has occurred in Idlib, Deraa and the city of Homs, where activists have reported clashes and gunfire since Sunday.
Street protests against Assad’s 11-year autocratic rule, inspired by uprisings which have swept three North African leaders from power, have been mainly peaceful but there have been increasing reports of attacks on security forces by army defectors and gunmen.
The Syrian Observatory activist group said troops had opened fire late on Thursday on a funeral in Binish for some of those killed earlier in the day, including a young child and a female university student.
It also said there were reports that 25 pro-Assad troops had been killed in Binish and said authorities were hiding the true extent of the army’s losses.
The group said it was “astonished at the silence of authorities over the deaths of tens of soldiers from the regime’s army” who it said were killed in the provinces of Deraa, Deir al-Zor, Idlib and Homs. It said the soldiers’ bodies had not been returned to their families.
Assad told a delegation of pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians that the country had “passed the most difficult stage” and would become a model for the region, the state news agency SANA said.
Despite his confident comments, Assad faces growing regional pressure over his crackdown on the protests. Neighboring Turkey, a former close ally, says it plans to impose sanctions on Damascus and Gulf Arab states called for an Arab League meeting to discuss the “dire” situation in Syria.
They said the meeting be should held at foreign ministers’ level and discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria, and study ways “to stop the bloodshed and machine of violence.”
Qatar’s emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani challenged the government this week to reach agreement with a newly formed opposition national council. Damascus says the body is illegitimate and warned other countries against recognizing it.
In London, Britain’s foreign ministry called in Syria’s ambassador on Thursday to protest about alleged intimidation of Syrian dissidents there, Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
Rights group Amnesty International said this month Syrian diplomats in foreign capitals are mounting campaigns of harassment and threats against expatriate dissidents protesting outside Syrian embassies.
Additional reporting by Justina Pawlak in Brussels, Martina Fuchs in Dubai and Adrian Croft in London; Editing by Matthew Jones