December 12, 2016 / 10:42 AM / 8 months ago

EU retreats from threat of Russia sanctions over Aleppo

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union has backed away from an October threat to impose sanctions on Russia over the bombing of Aleppo despite an intensification of Moscow's air campaign and accusations by France that the Kremlin is lying in peace talks.

Foreign ministers avoided on Monday any discussion of punitive measures on Moscow, in an apparent reluctance to make good on a pledge by EU leaders at a summit on Oct.21 to consider "all available options, should the current atrocities continue."

"There is a lot of talk about the need to identify war crimes taking place there. We spoke of sanctions on the Syrian regime," Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told reporters in Brussels following a lunch discussion on Syria.

"There was no talk of sanctions on Russia," he said, in comments echoed by Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

EU leaders will not decide on additional sanctions on Russia over Syria at a summit on Thursday in Brussels, diplomats said.

Rights groups say Syria's renewed, Russian-backed, assault on rebels in Aleppo since late November has left tens of thousands of civilians trapped in an ever shrinking enclave, pounded by air strikes and without basic supplies.

With Syrian generals claiming Aleppo's imminent fall, state television footage showed mounds of rubble and half-collapsed buildings, with bodies still lying on the ground and a few bewildered civilians carrying children or suitcases.

Such scenes two months ago galvanised an often-divided EU to seek to isolate Russian diplomatically, with France and Britain pushing the other governments in the bloc to agree sharp criticism of Russia and consider fresh sanctions on Moscow.

In a tough statement berating Moscow on Friday night, the EU's top diplomat said more sanctions were looming on Damascus but did not mention punishing Russia.

The scale of the destruction unleashed by Russian bombers was not enough to convince Moscow's long-time backers in Athens, Budapest and Nicosia, to enact asset freezes and travel bans on senior Russian officials, diplomats said.

"Governments that support sanctions still want them, but those that resist have not changed their position," said an EU diplomat, citing Greece, Hungary and Cyprus as the main obstacles for sanctions to be agreed, which requires unanimity.

The European Union has separate sanctions on Russia's financial, energy and defence sectors, which were imposed following the Kremlin's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Some governments, including Austria and parts of the German government, worry about worsening ties further with Russia.

The divisions left France's foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault exasperated after peace talks in Paris failed at the weekend and he accused Moscow of intentionally deceiving its partners.

"There is Russian doublespeak ... a form of constant lies. On the one hand they say let's negotiate, and we negotiate to reach a ceasefire," Ayrault told reporters. "On the other, they continue the war, a total war, it's a desire to save the (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad regime and to make Aleppo fall."

Editing by Ralph Boulton

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