US sanctions hundreds of employees of Syrian research center

WASHINGTON, April 24 (Reuters) - The United States on Monday blacklisted 271 employees of a Syrian government agency it said was responsible for developing chemical weapons, weeks after a poison gas attack killed scores of people in a rebel-held province in Syria.

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned 271 employees of Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), an agency that Washington says develops chemical weapons for the government of Bashar al-Assad, the Treasury said in a statement.

Some of the people blacklisted had worked on Syria's chemical weapons program for more than five years, the Treasury Department said. The sanction orders U.S. banks to freeze the assets of any employees named, and bans American companies from conducting business with them.

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ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH People stand near a dead body, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask as another one receives treatments, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A Syrian child receives treatment at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following an attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds an injured baby inside a Turkish ambulance as injured Syrian people enter into Turkey from the Cilvegozu border gate in Hatay province, near the Syrian border on April 4, 2017. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A wounded kid receives medical treatment at sahra hospital after Assad Regime forces's attack with chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Abdulghani Arian/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A woman gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A crater is seen at the site of an airstrike, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Turkish officials with chemical clothes carry a injured man on April 4, 2017 in Hatay province, near the Syrian border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Bodies lie in the parking area of a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Those designated were "highly educated" individuals likely to be able to travel outside of Syria and use the international financial system even if they may not have assets abroad, administration officials said during a conference call with reporters.

"These sweeping sanctions target the scientific support center for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's horrific chemical weapons attack on innocent civilian men, women, and children," U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

SEE ALSO: US Defense Secretary Mattis says Syria still has chemical weapons

U.S. authorities, he said, would "relentlessly pursue and shut down the financial networks of all individuals involved with the production of chemical weapons used to commit these atrocities."

The sanctions listings are the latest action taken by the Trump Administration in response to the April 4 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun that U.S. authorities say killed nearly 90 people, including children. The United States says Assad's forces carried out the attack, while Assad has said the attack is a fabrication.

Earlier this month, the United States launched dozens of missiles against a Syrian air base the Pentagon says was used to launch the chemical attack.

President George W. Bush first placed sanctions against the SSRC in 2005, accusing it of producing weapons of mass destruction.

Although the Syrian government promotes the SSRC as a civilian research center, "its activities focus substantively on the development of biological and chemical weapons," U.S. officials said.

During the Obama administration, the United States in July 2016 sanctioned people and companies for supporting the SSRC, and on Jan. 12, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned six SSRC officials it said were linked to SSRC branches affiliated with chemical weapons logistics or research. (Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati, Joel Schectman and David Lawder; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bernadette Baum)

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