WASHNGTON/AMMAN (Reuters) - Washington imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for human rights abuses on Wednesday in a dramatic escalation of pressure on Syria to cease its brutal crackdown on protesters.
Assad had been partly rehabilitated in the West over the last three years but Western powers have condemned his use of force to quell protests against his 11 years in power.
Targeting Assad personally with sanctions, which the United States and European Union have so far avoided, is a significant slap at Damascus and raises questions about whether Washington and the West may ultimately seek Assad's removal from power.
Human rights groups say at least 700 civilians have been killed in two months of clashes between government forces and protesters seeking an end of Assad's rule.
The move, announced by the Treasury Department, freezes any assets of the Syrian officials that are in the United States or otherwise fall within U.S. jurisdiction and it generally bars U.S. individuals and companies from dealing with them.
In addition to Assad, it said the sanctions would target Vice President Farouq al-Shara, Prime Minister Adel Safar, Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, Defense Minister Ali Habib as well as Abdul Fatah Qudsiya, the head of Syrian military intelligence, and Mohammed Dib Zaitoun, director of the political security directorate.
Switzerland said on Wednesday it would impose travel bans on 13 top Syrian officials -- not including Assad himself -- and freeze any of their assets held in Swiss banks, matching a decision by the European Union last week.
Syrian authorities blame most of the violence on armed groups backed by Islamists and outside powers, saying they have also killed more than 120 soldiers and police.
TANKS SHELL SYRIAN TOWN FOR 4TH DAY
In Syria, tanks shelled a border town for the fourth day on Wednesday in the latest targeted military campaign to crush demonstrations.
Troops went into Tel Kelakh on Saturday, a day after a demonstration there demanded "the overthrow of the regime," the slogan of revolutions that toppled Arab leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and challenged others across the Middle East.
"We're still without water, electricity or communications," a resident of Tel Kelakh said, speaking by satellite phone.
He said the army was storming houses and making arrests, but withdrawing from neighborhoods after the raids. In a sign that the army was coming under fire in the town, he said some families "are resisting, preferring death to humiliation."
A witness on the Lebanese side of the border said heavy gunfire could be heard from Tel Kelakh.
Assad told a delegation from the Damascus district of Midan that security forces had made mistakes handling the protests, al Watan newspaper said on Wednesday. One delegate said Assad had told them that 4,000 police would receive training "to prevent these excesses" being repeated, it said.
Syria has barred most international media from operating in the country, making it hard to verify reports from activists and officials.
Prominent human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouna said the army and security forces have killed at least 27 civilians since the army moved into Tel Kelakh.
The state news agency SANA quoted a military source saying eight soldiers had been killed on Tuesday in Tel Kelakh and in the southern rural Deraa province where protests first broke out exactly two months ago.
It said five of the dead were killed when an "armed terrorist group" fired on a security forces patrol near Tel Kelakh, which is close to Lebanon's northern border.
The Tel Kelakh resident said artillery and heavy machinegun fire hit the main road leading to Lebanon overnight, as well as the Abraj neighborhood inhabited by minority Turkmen and Kurds.
"Most residents of Tel Kelakh have fled. Some remaining people tried to escape to Lebanon yesterday but the shelling has been too heavy," the resident said. "Abraj residents have issued a call to (Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip) Erdogan to help them. But it is like the drowning hanging on to a straw."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington, Nazih Siddiq in Wadi Khaled, Lebanon; writing by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; Editing by Maria Golovnina)