Syria admits having chemical, bio weapons

Syria could use its chemical and biological weapons if the country faces foreign intervention.

Smoke bellows in Syria as the country is engulfed in ongoing anti-government protests. Picture: AFP

BEIRUT - Syria acknowledged for the first time on Monday that it had chemical and biological weapons, saying they could be used if the country faced foreign intervention.

International pressure on President Bashar al-Assad has escalated dramatically in the last week with a rebel offensive in the two biggest cities and a bomb attack which killed four members of his inner circle in Damascus.

Defying Arab foreign ministers who on Sunday offered the Assad a "safe exit" if he stepped down, the Syrian leader has launched fierce counter-offensives, reflecting his determination to hold on to power.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the army would not use chemical weapons to crush rebels but they could be used 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 have denied that it had any stockpiles.

As violence escalates in Syria, insurgents have said they fear Assad's forces will resort to non-conventional weapons as they seek to claw back rebel gains across the country.

Western and Israeli countries have also expressed fears that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups as Assad's authority erodes.

Arab League ministers meeting in Doha urged the opposition and the rebel Free Syrian Army to form a transitional government, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told a news conference in Doha.

Makdissi condemned calls for Assad to step down at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Qatar over the weekend, calling it a "flagrant intervention" in Syria's internal affairs.

"We regret that the Arab League stooped to this immoral level in dealing with a founding member instead of helping Syria," he said.

On Monday the army shelled rebel forces in the northern city of Aleppo and stormed the southern Damascus neighbourhood of Nahr Aisha, breaking into shops and houses and burning some of them, activists said.

Video showed dozens of men in green army fatigues massing in the neighbourhood, which looked completely abandoned. Men carrying machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers knocked and then kicked down doors and climbed through windows.

Assad's forces have reasserted control over several Damascus areas since they seized back the central Midan district on Friday, following a devastating bomb attack that killed four of Assad's top security officials.

"The regime strategy is to continue to confront the opposition, this time with much broader military response," said Ayham Kamel, Middle East analyst at Eurasia Group consultancy.

"The expectation that the regime is out of firepower or collapsing right now is misplaced."

But Assad's forces have lost ground outside cities, ceding control of four border posts on the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

Rebels also seized an army infantry school in the town of Musalmiyeh, 16 km (10 miles) north of Aleppo, and captured several loyalist officers, while others defected, a senior military defector inTurkey and rebel sources inside Syria said.

In Aleppo, activists said residents were fleeing the rebel-held districts of Al-Haideriya, Hanano and Sakhour after army shelling and clashes between rebels and government forces.

A rebel fighter said the rebels had destroyed three tanks in the Hanano district and predicted weeks of fighting in Syria's largest city.

"The regime is fighting for its survival. God willing by the end of Ramadan, Aleppo will be in our hands," Mustafa Mohammad said referring to the Muslim holy month which started on Friday.