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Will Syria use chemical weapons against foreigners?

The past week of fighting in Syria has escalated international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian officials now say they won't use their biological and chemical weapons 'unless Syria faces external aggression.'

By Erika Solomon and Mariam KarounyReuters / July 23, 2012

This image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News shows a Free Syrian Army soldier looking at a fire that caught during clashes with Syrian government troops. The Syrian regime acknowledged for the first time that it possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and said it will only use them in case of a foreign attack.

AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video

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BEIRUT

Western states expressed alarm after Syria acknowledged for the first time that it has chemical and biological weapons and said it could use them if foreign countries intervene.

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A week of unprecedented fighting inside the capital, Damascus, including a bomb attack that killed four of President Bashar al-Assad's closest advisers, has transformed the 16-month uprising and dramatically escalated international pressure on Assad.

Damascus residents said the capital was relatively quiet in the early hours of Tuesday after a day of fighting that saw government troops storm a neighbourhood.

Defying Arab foreign ministers who on Sunday offered Assad a "safe exit" if he stepped down, the Syrian leader has launched fierce counter-offensives, reflecting his determination to keep power as the uprising enters its most violent phase.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the army would not use chemical weapons to crush rebels but could use them against forces from outside the country.

"Any chemical or bacterial weapons will never be used ... during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments," Makdissi said. "These weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces and under its direct supervision and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression."

Damascus has not signed a 1992 international convention that bans the use, production or stockpiling of chemical weapons, but officials in the past had denied it had any stockpiles. Washington and other Western capitals rushed to warn Syria against making any threats to use such weapons.

"Given the regime's stockpiles of chemical weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching and that they will be held accountable by the international community and the United States should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons," U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said warnings against using chemical weapons extended not only to the Syrian government but to rebels and any militants who might try to obtain them.

Britain, Germany and other countries also said it was unacceptable for Syria to say it might use chemical arms. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was very concerned Syria may be tempted to use unconventional weapons.

Western countries and Israel have expressed fears chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups as Assad's authority erodes. Israel has publicly discussed military action to prevent Syrian chemical weapons or missiles from reaching Assad's Lebanese Shi'ite militant allies Hezbollah.

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