WASHINGTON - The United States will impose sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad for human rights abuses on Wednesday, sources briefed on the matter said, in a dramatic escalation of US pressure on Damascus to cease its brutal crackdown on protesters.

The sources declined to provide further details on the US decision other than to say it would be announced on Wednesday and that the US sanctions would flow from alleged human rights abuses by Assad.

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Targeting Assad personally with sanctions, which the United States and the European Union have so far avoided, would be a significant new break with Damascus and raise questions about whether the West ultimately seeks his removal from power.

Syrian rights activists say at least 700 civilians have been killed in two months of clashes between government forces and protesters seeking an end to his 11-year rule.

European governments agreed on Tuesday to tighten sanctions against the Syrian leadership, but said they would decide next week about whether to include Assad on the list.

US President Barack Obama last month signed an executive order imposing a first round of US sanctions against Syria's intelligence agency and two relatives of Assad's for alleged human rights abuses.

The EU, for its part, put 13 Syrian officials on its sanctions list in what it described as a move to gradually increase pressure.

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