BEIRUT — The European Union will impose harsher sanctions on Syria, a senior EU official said Wednesday, as Russia tried to broker talks between the vice president and the opposition to calm violence. Activists reported at least 50 killed in military assaults targeting government opponents.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who held emergency talks in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday, is trying to end Syria's 11-month-old bloody uprising, which has left more than 5,400 dead, according to the U.N. Moscow launched the initiative on Tuesday, just days after it infuriated the U.S. by blocking a Western- and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolution supporting calls for Assad to hand over some powers to his vice president.
Russia's approach does not call for Assad to step down, the opposition's chief demand, and Moscow is increasingly at odds with the Western efforts to end Assad's crackdown.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said outside forces should let Syrians settle their conflict "independently."
"We should not act like a bull in a china shop," Putin was quoted by the Itar Tass news agency as saying. "We have to give people a chance to make decisions about their destiny independently, to help, to give advice, to put limits somewhere so that the opposing sides would not have a chance to use arms, but not to interfere.
Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that Assad has "delegated the responsibility of holding such a dialogue to Vice President (Farouk) al-Sharaa." He blamed both Assad's regime and opposition forces for instigating the violence that has killed thousands of people since March.
"On both sides, there are people that aim at an armed confrontation, not a dialogue," Lavrov said.
Military defectors are playing a bigger role in Syria's Arab-Spring inspired uprising, turning it into a more militarized conflict and hurtling the country ever more quickly toward a civil war.
The regime's crackdown on dissent has left it almost completely isolated internationally and facing growing sanctions. The U.S. closed its embassy in Damascus on Monday and five European countries and six Arab Gulf nations have pulled their ambassadors out of Damascus over the past two days. Germany, whose envoy left Syria this month, said he would not be replaced.
Nevertheless, Assad was bolstered by Tuesday's visit from Lavrov and Russia's intelligence chief, Mikhail Fradkov. During the talks, the Russians pushed for a solution that would include reforms by the regime as well as the dialogue with the opposition.
Assad said Syria was determined to hold a national dialogue with the opposition and independent figures, and that his government was "ready to cooperate with any effort that boosts stability in Syria," according to state news agency SANA.
The Syrian opposition rejects any talks with the regime and says they accept nothing less than Assad's departure.
In Brussels, a senior EU official said the bloc will soon impose harsher sanctions against Syria as it seeks to weaken Assad's regime. The official said the new measures may include bans on the import of Syrian phosphates, on commercial flights between Syria and Europe, and on financial transactions with the country's central bank.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with EU rules, said some measures would be adopted at the EU foreign ministers meeting on Feb. 27.
As Russia pressed its efforts to start a dialogue, Syrian troops bombed residential neighborhoods in the central city of Homs, the northern province of Idlib, southern region of Daraa and the mountain town of Zabadani, in what activists say is the regime's final push to retake areas controlled by the rebels.
Activists said at least 50 people died in Wednesday's shelling of Homs, which has been under a relentless regime offensive for the past five days. Hundreds are believed to have been killed there since Saturday.
Syria's state-run TV reported that gunmen fired mortar rounds at the oil refinery in Homs, one of two in Syria, setting two fuel tankers on fire but firefighters were able to control the blaze afterward. The TV also reported that gunmen attacked Homs' Baath University causing damage but no casualties.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 50 people were killed in Wednesday's shelling of the Homs neighborhoods of Bayadah, Baba Amr, Khaldiyeh and Karm el-Zeytoun. The group also said that 23 homes were heavily damaged in Baba Amr alone.
Omar Shaker, an activist in Baba Amr, said his neighborhood was under "very intense shelling" by tanks, mortars, artilleries and heavy machine guns. Shaker added that he counted five bodies Wednesday in his district.
"The situation is dire. We are short of food, water and medical aid. Doctors have collapsed after treating the wounded without rest for five days," Shaker said. "We want Lavrov to come and spend a night in Homs to see what we have been passing through."
The activist urged the international community to set up a safe passage so that women and children can leave volatile areas of Homs.
The head of the Observatory, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said the regime was trying "exhaust rebels in preparation for storming neighborhoods."
The Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, also reported intense clashes between troops loyal to Assad and defectors on Wednesday in the province of Idlib, bordering Turkey. The Observatory said at least five soldiers were killed in the clashes.
The LCC said troops backed by tanks were also shelling and pushing forward in the southern village of Tseel in the Daraa province that borders Jordan. The group also said that rebel-controlled Zabadani, west of Damascus, was subjected to intense shelling since the early hours of the day.