Syria was the target of fresh European Union sanctions on Monday, as the 27-nation bloc's foreign ministers said they saw signs that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime was starting to crumble.
The EU confirmed Monday morning there was an agreement on the fresh measures although they will only be officially detailed on Tuesday. The measures include an asset freeze and travel ban on 26 mainly military and intelligence officials and three companies, including Syria's main airline, according to EU diplomats. They also include a tightening of the arms embargo.
"It is important to carry on with the sanctions," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on her way into a meeting of foreign ministers.
The effort to tighten the arms embargo includes a measure to oblige member states to inspect vessels in their territorial waters or ports suspected of carrying arms to Syria. Planes suspected of carrying weapons will also be subject to searches, diplomats said last week.
That initiative could irk Russia, which stands widely accused of providing assistance to Mr. Assad's regime. Last month, U.K. authorities said a ship carrying Russian-refurbished attack helicopters to Syria turned back after its insurance cover was stripped.
The EU has already launched 16 rounds of sanctions on Syria over its repression of protesters, including a ban on Syrian oil exports and an asset freeze and travel ban on many top officials, including Mr. Assad and some family members.
The ban on the Syrian airline, Syrian Air, will mean it can't carry passengers or cargo to Europe although the airline will be able to continue flying over the continent and will be permitted to carry out emergency landings, one EU diplomat said.
The diplomat said ministers also discussed calls for Mr. Assad to be given safe refuge abroad in exchange for leaving power. But the person said ministers were divided on the issue, with some saying the option of taking the Syrian leader to the International Criminal Court shouldn't be taken off the table.
As they entered the meeting, ministers said they saw growing signs the Assad regime was weakening—including defections and last week's bomb blast in Damascus that killed the defense minister and Mr. Assad's brother-in-law.
Deputy German Foreign Minister Michael Link said the sanctions would "further close the circle" around the Assad regime.
"Time is running out for the regime now," he told reporters.
Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said he was increasingly "confident" that Mr. Assad's regime was facing the "beginning of the end."
"We are confident that we are now talking not about the question whether Assad will step down but only about the moment he will do that," he said.
Speaking on his way into the meeting, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said he hopes that the intensifying pressure will persuade Mr. Assad to quit.
"We've said since August last year, he should go. Where he goes is up to him," he said.
Mr. Hague joined his French counterpart Laurent Fabius in calling for stepped-up humanitarian aid for those fleeing Syria because of the fighting.
He also attacked last week's decision by Russia and China to block the latest United Nations Security Council resolution against Syria. He said it means governments "will have to intensify our work outside the Security Council."
"We remain very disappointed and appalled by the vetoing by Russia and China of the" resolution, Mr. Hague said. "I think that events over the weekend including the escalating death toll and the spreading of violence to other parts of Syria show how necessary that resolution was."
Foreign ministers also agreed that they would suspend most sanctions on Zimbabwe if a referendum on a new constitution goes ahead peacefully.
The referendum, expected in the autumn, is supposed to pave the way for free and fair elections in 2013.
In a statement, foreign ministers said the EU "agrees that a peaceful and credible constitutional referendum would represent an important milestone…that would justify a suspension of the majority of all EU targeted restrictive measures against individuals and entities."
Sanctions currently affect 112 people and 11 entities.
EU diplomats have said in recent days that sanctions won't be suspended against Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe or his inner circle.
The EU also agreed to immediately suspend a ban on providing aid for Zimbabwe.