The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

December 4, 2012

Clashes hit Damascus amid chemical weapons fears

— BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian forces fired artillery at rebel targets in and around Damascus on Tuesday as the country's civil war closed in on President Bashar Assad's seat of power and the international community grew increasingly alarmed about the regime's chemical weapons stocks.

Syrian rebels have made gains in recent weeks, overrunning military bases and bringing the fight to Damascus. Since Thursday, the capital has seen some of the heaviest fighting since July, killing scores of people, forcing international flights to turn back or cancel flights and prompting the United Nations to withdraw most of its international staff.

U.S. intelligence has detected signs the regime was moving chemical weapons components around within several sites in recent days, according to a senior U.S. defense official and two U.S. officials. The activities involved movement within the sites, rather than the transfer of components in or out of various sites, two of the officials said.

But this type of activity had not been detected before and one of the U.S. officials said it bears further scrutiny.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned Tuesday that "if anybody uses chemical weapons, I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community."

His comments echoed a warning on Monday from President Barack Obama that there would be consequences if Assad made the "tragic mistake" of deploying chemical weapons.

"Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons are a matter of great concern," Fogh Rasmussen said as he arrived in Brussels.

Syria is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons in war.

In July, Syria threatened to unleash its chemical and biological weapons in case of a foreign attack. The statement was Syria's first-ever acknowledgement that the country possesses weapons of mass destruction.

But the regime quickly tried to clarify its comments, saying "all of these types of weapons — IF ANY — are in storage and under security." That appeared to be an attempt to return to the regime's position of neither confirming nor denying whether it possessed non-conventional weapons.

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