By David Brunnstrom
LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union expressed disappointment at a speech by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday and said it was preparing to expand its sanctions on Syria in response to worsening violence against his opponents.
"The EU is actively preparing to expand its restrictive measures ... with a view to achieving a fundamental change of policy by the Syrian leadership without delay," a statement agreed by EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg said.
EU diplomats said they expected the broader sanctions -- including further asset freezes and restrictions on companies associated with individuals linked to the repression -- would be approved by the time of an EU summit on Thursday and Friday.
The EU statement followed a speech by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier in the day that opponents said did not meet popular demands for sweeping political change.
Western countries have used strong rhetoric to criticize Assad, but their practical response has so far been limited to targeted economic sanctions, a far cry from the military intervention deployed against Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Assad must launch "a credible, genuine and inclusive dialogue" and it was up to Syrians to judge his willingness to reform.
She added at a news briefing: "I have to say at first glance, the speech today was disappointing."
British foreign Secretary William Hague called the speech "unconvincing."
"If President Assad is to restore any credibility the Syrian people need to see concrete action, not vague promises," he said, calling for an end to violence, release of all political prisoners and rapid implementation of substantial reforms.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called the repression in Syria "unacceptable" and said Assad had lost his legitimacy.
"We want the sanctions to be strengthened and we received the backing of our European colleagues," he told reporters.
EU SEEKS STRONG UN STANCE
Juppe said the bloc wanted a strong U.N. stance, and while he realized there was a threat of a Russian veto at the United Nations, if necessary it should go for a majority vote.
Under mounting international pressure and facing wider street protests despite a military crackdown that has killed more than 1,300 people, Assad promised reforms within months. Assad said "saboteurs" among the protesters were serving a foreign conspiracy to sow chaos.
The EU statement said the bloc condemned "in the strongest terms the worsening violence in Syria."
"The EU deplores the fact that the Syrian authorities have not responded to the calls to immediately stop the violence and engage in meaningful reforms," it said, calling on demonstrators to maintain the peaceful nature of their protests.
The statement said violence and repression represented a threat to stability in Syria itself and regionally.
In May, the European Union added Assad and other senior officials to a list of those banned from traveling to the EU and subject to asset freezes.
(Additional reporting by Julien Toyer; Editing by Peter Graff)