Syria troops bomb towns as EU grounds First Lady

DAMASCUS, March 24, (AFP) Syrian forces bombed towns and clashed with rebels in several regions on Friday as activists said thousands staged anti-regime protests and the European Union slapped sanctions on the country's First Lady.

In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council ordered the extension of a probe into violations in Syria, and asked investigators to map out abuses since a deadly crackdown on protests in the country erupted in March 2011.

UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was to travel this weekend to Moscow and Beijing, which have blocked Security Council action against Syria over the crackdown, but he had no immediate plans to return to Damascus.

Adding to pressure on the regime, the EU on Friday agreed to sanction President Bashar al-Assad's glamorous British-born wife Asma, along with his mother, sister and sister-in-law. Diplomats in Brussels said EU foreign ministers had agreed an assets freeze and travel ban on "Assad's wife, mother, sister and sister-in-law," and eight other entourage members.

Asma Assad, whose parents live in Britain where she grew up, cannot be barred entry to the country but is not expected "to try to travel to the United Kingdom at the moment," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

Washington hailed the EU move and said it was looking into what more can be done. "We are gratified that the EU has taken yet another step in tightening the noose on the Assad regime," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

The president himself was targeted last May 10, along with his younger brother Maher and four cousins.
Demonstrators in all the hot spots of anti-regime revolt across Syria on Friday numbered hundreds of thousands, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

While they protested under the slogan of "Damascus, here we come," eight people were wounded in the Kfar Sousa district of the capital as security forces opened fire to disperse protesters, it said. At least 17 people were killed in violence nationwide on Friday, the Britain-based group said -- seven soldiers, three army deserters and seven civilians.

Fighting raged in the town of Aazaz in the northern province of Aleppo near the Turkish border, the Observatory and activists said. At least three deserters and a civilian were killed, the monitoring group said.

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