The UN Security Council, including Russia and China, threw its weight on Wednesday behind efforts by Kofi Annan to end the bloody conflict in Syria, providing a rare moment of global unity in the face of the year-long crisis.
In a statement approved by all its 15 members, the council threatened Syria with unspecified "further steps" if it failed to comply with Annan's peace plan, which calls for a ceasefire and demands swift access for aid agencies.
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Although the original statement was diluted at Russia's demand, editing out any specific ultimatums, the fact that all world powers signed up to the proposal dealt a serious blow to President Bashar Assad as he battles a popular uprising.
"To President Assad and his regime we say, along with the rest of the international community: take this path, commit to it, or face increasing pressure and isolation," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington.
Adding to the pressure, European Union governments are set to impose sanctions against Syrian Assad's wife Asma on Friday, EU diplomats said, meaning that she will no longer be able to travel to the EU or buy from EU-based shops, in her own name.
The sanctions, which still need formal approval from ministers, come after the British-born former investment banker became the focus of media attention when a trove of emails obtained by Britain's Guardian newspaper appeared to show her spending tens of thousands of dollars on internet shopping sprees while Syria descended into bloodletting.
At least 8,000 people have died in the revolt, according to UN figures. Violence has intensified in recent weeks as pro-government forces bombard rebel towns and villages, looking to sweep their lightly armed opponents out of their strongholds.
Assad's forces have chalked up a string of gains as they turned their firepower on areas held by rebels. But the fighting shows no sign of abating and analysts expect the insurgents to change their tactics and adopt guerrilla warfare.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 21 civilians were killed in Syria on Wednesday, the majority in government shelling on towns in Syria's central Homs province.
Russia and China, competing with Western powers for influence in the Middle East, previously vetoed two UN draft resolutions that would have condemned Damascus and have resisted calls from Western and Arab states for Assad to stand down.
But faced by growing global outrage at the bloodshed, the two countries agreed to a so-called "presidential statement". They are generally non-binding documents but do require unanimous support in the Security Council.
Russia, one of Assad's few remaining allies, praised the document as pragmatic. "The most important thing is that there are no ultimatums ... and no suggestions as to who carries more blame," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Berlin.
The accord came a few days after Annan, a former UN secretary general, told the Security Council that Damascus's response to his plans for peace were disappointing and he had urged the international community to lay aside its divisions.
His proposal, spelled out in the UN statement, tells the Syrian government to cease troop movements in population centres and end the use of heavy weapons in such areas.
It also calls for the government and opposition to hold talks to secure a peaceful settlement. Assad has not rejected the proposals but has challenged their feasibility and asked who can speak for the splintered opposition.
Yitzhak Benhorin in Washington contributed to this report
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