December 04, 2011, 9:11 AM EST
By Donna Abu-Nasr
(Updates with Syrian remarks in eighth paragraph.)
Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) — The Arab League froze the assets of 19 Syrian officials, banned their travel and reduced air travel to the nation yesterday as 25 more people died protesting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Some of the protesters were killed in fighting between Syrian security forces and rebels that began in a city near the Turkish border, Al Jazeera reported, citing the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Army tank rounds were fired into the Bab Amro district of Homs, wounding 15.
Assad faces growing economic and political pressure to end a crackdown against protests that began in mid-March, inspired by movements that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The violence risks moving Syria closer to a civil war as military personnel defect and take up arms against the government.
“As Arabs we’re concerned that if this situation persists events will escape our control,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim Al Thani told reporters yesterday.
Syria, which has until today to sign an accord to allow in observers and avoid fresh sanctions, was invited to come to Doha “and we’re waiting for a response,” Sheikh Hamad said.
Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, and businessman Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad, are among those who won’t be allowed to travel in Arab League states and whose financial assets in those nations will be frozen, the league said in a statement in the Qatari capital yesterday after a meeting of the group’s foreign ministers.
Half of air travel to and from Syria and Arab League states will be cut staring Dec. 15, the statement said. The travel ban and flight reduction will go ahead if Syria doesn’t comply today with an Arab League plan for releasing political prisoners and admitting international monitors.
Syrian Interior Minister Mohamad Ibrahim al-Shaar called the Arab League decisions “unfair” and said at a police graduation ceremony yesterday that the measures serve U.S. and Israeli interests, state-run SANA news agency reported.
He said Syria’s campaign to arrest “armed terrorist groups” continues, according to SANA. Syrian officials have said their crackdown is targeting foreign-backed Muslim radicals bent on destabilizing the country.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem on Nov. 29 called the Arab League’s sanctions against his country a declaration of “economic war.”
The UN Human Rights Council’s independent commission of inquiry last week said its probe found that Syrian military and security forces had committed “gross violations of human rights.” The commission, which interviewed 223 “victims and witnesses,” said it is “gravely concerned that crimes against humanity have been committed” throughout Syria.
The UN estimates that at least 4,000 people have been killed since the start of the protests, while human-rights activists put the figure at more than 4,500.
The Arab League measures, which follow U.S. and European sanctions, will also halt dealings with the Syrian central bank.
Syria’s $60 billion economy, which grew 5.5 percent in 2010, may shrink 2 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, or at least 5 percent, according to the Institute of International Finance. The government expects growth of 1 percent, Finance Minister Mohammad Al-Jleilati said in September.
The economic sanctions are the first the Arab League has imposed on a member state since its formation in 1945. In 1979, the league suspended Egypt’s membership after President Anwar Sadat signed a peace agreement with Israel. It reinstated the North African nation in 1989.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has moved to ease Syria’s economic isolation and encourage foreign investment. He had encouraged private industry in Syria’s state- dominated economy to provide long-term financing for development and economic reforms.
Banque Saudi Fransi, a Saudi lender part-owned by Credit Agricole SA, said on Nov. 26 that it will sell its 27 percent stake in the Bemo Saudi Fransi Syria bank, citing “the financial risks” in the country.
–With assistance from Zaid Sabah and Nadeem Hamid in Washington and Massoud Derhally in Beirut. Editors: Andrew J. Barden, Louis Meixler, Digby Lidstone.
To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Manama at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com