Saturday 23 September 2017

Assad threatens chemical attack

Richard Spencer and Ruth Sherlock in Beirut

SYRIA shocked the West yesterday by threatening to use chemical weapons if outside forces intervened in its civil war.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad previously denied having weapons of mass destruction, even though its programme is thought by Western analysts to be the largest in the Arab world.

But the Syrian authorities struck back fiercely after concerns were expressed at reports by American intelligence that they had begun to move their stocks.

"Syria will not use any chemical or other unconventional weapons against its civilians, and will only use them in case of external aggression," Jihad Makdissi, the chief government spokesman, said.

"Any stocks of chemical weapons that may exist, will never, ever be used against the Syrian people," he said, adding that, in the event of a foreign attack, "the generals will be deciding when and how we use them".

He also rejected a demand by the Arab League that Mr Assad step down, after the group called on him to "renounce power", promising him a "safe exit".

Syrian authorities later tried to backtrack on the chemical weapons comments, saying they were taken out of context.

Nonetheless, the statement was condemned as "unacceptable" by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, while Guido Westerwelle, his German counterpart, said the threat was "monstrous". UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon added that any use of chemical weapons would be "reprehensible".

Syria is known to have large stocks of the nerve gas sarin and, it is suspected, VX, one of the most lethal forms of chemical weapon.

The statement was an immediate response to claims by Israel that it might have to take action to prevent the weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. But it also indicates a level of panic following the assassination of a swathe of Syria's senior command last week and subsequent rebel advances.

Yesterday, the regime completed its recapture of Damascus suburbs which briefly fell into rebel hands.

In the districts of Mezzeh and Barzeh, opposition activists claimed the battle had been followed by summary executions.

Wounds

Abu Hamza, one Mezzeh activist, said: "I have been searching the area for bodies since the army left last night. We are taking them to the central mosque. There are more than 20 people killed. We found two men inside their home and both had their hands tied behind their backs. One had been shot in the head and his throat had been cut. The other had stab wounds in his heart and in his neck."

Footage posted on YouTube showed lines of tanks driving through Mezzeh's streets on Sunday.

Snipers were positioned on the rooftops and men in military fatigues -- a mix of government soldiers and paramilitaries, according to opposition activists -- conducted early-morning house raids.

The fighting has now become increasingly brutal with some deaths unexplained.

One activist from the suburb of Midan, which was "cleansed of terrorists" on Friday, according to state media, said the bodies of five of his relatives who had been killed at least two days previously were found in their home -- a father, mother and their three children.

"The mother, Rima, was my second cousin," the activist said. "Their bodies were mutilated. Rima and her husband Said had been shot with two bullets to their heads. Wassim, the two-year-old boy's throat was cut. His six-year-old sister Noor was shot. Their big sister Bayan, who was 13, had also been shot. She was also raped."

While fighting back in Damascus, the regime was losing ground in the north, where it no longer controls some border posts. With rebels attacking Aleppo, the conflict is starting to resemble the civil war in Libya, where rebels extended control first to the eastern and then the western borders, allowing forces to regroup. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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