EU implements sanctions on Myanmar junta, firms

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BRUSSELS, Nov 19 (Reuters) The European Union adopted sanctions today against 1,207 firms in Myanmar and expanded visa bans and asset freezes on the country's military rulers in response to their bloody crackdown on protests.

The move implements sanctions agreed in principle by ministers last month after the junta crushed the biggest pro-democracy protests in nearly 20 years in September. The junta acknowledges killing at least 15 people in the monk-led protests, but Western diplomats say the figure was much higher.

The sanctions target the country's key timber, metals and gemstone sectors. They include an investment ban on companies controlled by the regime or by people linked to the regime.

EU foreign ministers also prohibited exports on equipment to sectors involving timber, metals, minerals, semi-precious and precious stones, as well as imports from these sectors.

''The EU remains concerned by the situation in Burma/Myanmar and reiterated its call on the government to take substantive steps to address the concerns of its people and the international community,'' ministers said in a statement.

The EU has stressed that its trade -- and therefore economic leverage -- with Myanmar is limited, though it has so far steered clear of Myanmar's energy sector, in which French oil giant Total is a big investor.

Ministers nevertheless stressed the 27-nation bloc could take further sanctions and had tasked experts to work on that.

''We continue to look for ways to put pressure on the Burmese regime in such a way that if it doesn't respond...the EU and the international community should be prepared to take further steps,'' British Europe minister Jim Murphy told reporters.

''But equally, if there is a positive response from the Burmese regime there also should be economic opportunity available to develop their economy,'' he said.

BANKING SANCTIONS POSSIBLE Murphy said additional future steps could include more stringent banking sanctions sought by activists including Human Rights Watch, which last week urged the European Union to coordinate such steps with the United States.

The United States has more stringent measures that deny individuals and entities access to US banking systems and international financial transactions.

It also has the capacity to refuse access to US financial institutions to any financial institution that services the ruling junta in Myanmar and Human Rights watch said it was important to prevent circumvention of this via European banks.

Myanmar's junta is widely believed to use Singapore as its main offshore banking centre and the United States has called on the city state to sever financial links with the generals.

The list of firms covered by the EU sanctions was due to be published later today.

The EU urged the junta to lift restrictions on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, enter into dialogue with her and release those detained in the protests.

Reuters SYU RN1854

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