May 31, 2013 / 4:55 PM / 5 years ago

EU to relax banking sanctions to help Syrian rebels

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European banks will be able to open branches and accounts in Syria for use by the opposition, European Union governments decided on Friday, relaxing economic sanctions to help the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

The decision comes days after the European Union lifted its arms embargo on Syria to allow weapons deliveries to the opposition, in hopes of tilting the balance of the two-year conflict in which more than 80,000 people have died.

The EU hopes that by providing access to financial services it can help the rebels fund humanitarian aid and restore basic utilities.

Aid is urgently needed in parts of Syria. The Red Cross has said some areas of the country are a landscape of “devastation and destruction”.

Civilians have been cut off from water, electricity and life-saving medical supplies, particularly in rebel-held areas targeted by air strikes and ballistic missiles.

Under the new EU rules, which go into effect on Saturday, EU governments will be able to authorise banking services in Syria if the opposition has been consulted and the contacts do not contravene asset freezes imposed on Syrian companies or officials.

The U.S. government has already allowed American citizens, companies and banks to send money to the Syrian rebels, exempting them from sanctions imposed at the start of Assad’s violent crackdown on anti-government protests.

The EU has also allowed European companies to buy oil from the Syrian rebels, although experts say any tangible economic benefit of such decisions may be far off because importers will likely be reluctant to wade into a war zone.

Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; editing by Ron Askew

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