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U.S. hits Syria with new sanctions

MYT 2:46:03 AM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States imposed sanctions on Wednesday against Syria's largest commercial bank and mobile phone operator to try to raise pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to end his brutal campaign against protesters.

A U.S. official told Reuters he expects Washington this week for the first time to explicitly call for Assad to go.

Human rights activists estimate Assad's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations over the past five months has left more than 1,600 people dead, putting pressure on the United States to do what it can to force Assad out.

So far, President Barack Obama has stopped short of calling on Assad to leave power, though on Monday it welcomed an Arab League statement condemning Syria as further sign that the world is repulsed by Assad's actions.

However, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday he expected the Syrian government to start reforms within 15 days, following talks between the two countries in which Turkey urged Assad to stop all violence and bloodshed.

In new sanctions, the U.S. Treasury Department added the Commercial Bank of Syria, a Syrian state-owned financial institution, and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, to a list that targets proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their supporters.

The Treasury Department also designated Syriatel, the country's largest mobile phone operator, under a separate presidential executive order that targets Syrian officials and others responsible for human rights abuses in Syria.

The actions freeze any assets held by the firms in U.S. jurisdiction and generally prohibits U.S. companies and individuals from doing business with them.

Previous U.S. sanctions have targeted the Syrian president and his brother Mahir al-Assad, other top government officials and security forces.

"By exposing Syria's large commercial bank as an agent for designated Syrian and North Korean proliferators, and by targeting Syria's largest mobile phone operator for being controlled by one of the regime's most corrupt insiders, we are taking aim at the financial infrastructure that is helping provide support to Assad and his regime's illicit activities," Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in a statement.

The Treasury Department said the Commercial Bank of Syria was designated for providing financial services to Syria's Scientific and Studies and Research Center (SSRC) and North Korea's Tanchon Commercial Bank, which was listed in 2005 for the support of weapons of mass destruction proliferation.

Syriatel is owned and run by Rami Makhluf, a powerful Syrian business and "regime insider" who was targeted under another U.S. executive order in 2008 for aiding the public corruption of Syrian regime officials and benefiting from that, the Treasury Department said.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer, editing by Anthony Boadle)

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