Syrian regime 'nearing collapse'
Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is on the brink of collapse, according to Nato's top official.
Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the regime's collapse is "only a matter of time". He confirmed earlier reports that Nato had detected Syrian forces launching short-range missiles at opposition forces within Syria, saying this illustrated the "utter disregard" for the lives of the Syrian people.
However, Syria's foreign ministry has denied claims that the government is using Scud missiles against rebels. The ministry said that the reports are nothing more than a conspiracy.
Earlier, Syria's most powerful ally, Russia, said for the first time that Assad is losing control of his country and the rebels might win the civil war. The comments dramatically shift the diplomatic landscape at a time of enormous momentum for the opposition.
While deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov did not issue any immediate signal that Russia could change its stance and stop blocking international sanctions on Assad's regime, his remarks will likely be seen as a betrayal in Damascus and could persuade many Syrians to shift their loyalties and abandon support for the government.
It could also further strengthen the hand of the rebels, who have made some significant gains in their offensive recently, capturing two major military bases and mounting a serious challenge to Assad's seat of power, Damascus.
"We must look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory," said Mr Bogdanov during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body, the Public Chamber. He added: "An opposition victory can't be excluded."
Mr Bogdanov's statement marks a clear attempt by the Kremlin to begin positioning itself for Assad's eventual defeat. He said that Russia is prepared to evacuate thousands of its citizens from Syria, although he did not say when that might happen. At the same time, Mr Bogdanov reaffirmed Russia's call for a compromise, saying it would take the opposition a long time to defeat the regime and Syria would suffer heavy casualties.
Mr Bogdanov repeated that Russia would stick to an agreement reached in Geneva in June calling for negotiations involving the government and the opposition. Russia has joined with China at the United Nations Security Council to veto three resolutions that would have imposed sanctions on Assad's regime over its bloody crackdown on the uprising that began in March 2011.
Meanwhile, 16 people have been killed in a bomb blast near Damascus, Syria's state news agency said. At least half of the dead were reported to be women and children. The Sana news agency said a car packed with explosives blew up near a school in a residential part of Qatana suburb, south-west of the capital.