By Justyna Pawlak
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union governments agreed on Friday to increase the number of Syrian officials and institutions targeted by EU sanctions and laid out plans for a possible oil embargo, the bloc's foreign policy chief said.
The moves reflected a significant stepping up of international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, in response to his violent crackdown on protesters contesting his family's four-decade rule over Syria.
The United States and the EU, along with the governments of Britain, France and Germany, called on Thursday for Assad to step down. Major states had until then urged him to reform rather than leave.
The EU initially appeared to move with more caution than Washington, which coupled Thursday's calls with a ban on U.S. citizens from operating in or investing in Syria and a prohibition against U.S. imports of Syrian oil products.
At a meeting in Brussels, EU ambassadors agreed to add 15 people and five institutions to a list of entities already targeted by EU asset freezes or travel bans. The new lists will be subject to formal approval early next week.
They also asked the bloc's diplomatic service, the EEAS, to prepare plans for further measures.
"Proposals are now being prepared for an embargo on the import of Syrian crude oil into the European Union," the bloc's foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.
"The escalation of the violent crackdown on peaceful protestors and the intensifying large-scale use of indiscriminate military force have shown the complete loss of the Syrian regime's legitimacy, and the necessity for Bashar al-Assad to step aside," she said.
The EU's 27 governments have already subjected 35 individuals, including Assad, to asset freezes and visa bans and targeted military-linked firms tied to the suppression of dissent.
New plans could include companies linked to the regime, not only those involved in repression, EU diplomats said. They could target banking and telecommunications, as well as oil.
Europe has taken an incremental approach to Syrian sanctions in recent months, with some EU governments concerned about harming their commercial interests and long-term relations with the government.
Firms like Anglo-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell and France's Total are significant investors in Syria.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said there were very strong reasons for an oil embargo.
"What one always has to put in the balance is to make sure it doesn't hit ordinary people too much," he said.
"In the situation in which we are now, it is important to send the strongest possible signal."
(Additional reporting by Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm; Editing by Rex Merrifield)