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Syria threatens to unleash WMDs if foreigners attack

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BEIRUT -- Syria threatened Monday to unleash its chemical and biological weapons if the country faces a foreign attack, a desperate warning from a regime that has failed to crush a powerful and strengthening rebellion.

The statement -- Syria's first-ever acknowledgement the country possesses weapons of mass destruction -- suggests President Bashar Assad will continue the fight to stay in power, regardless of the cost.

"It would be reprehensible if anybody in Syria is contemplating use of such weapons of mass destruction like chemical weapons," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during a trip to Belgrade, Serbia. "I sincerely hope the international community will keep an eye on this so that there will be no such things happening."

Syria is believed to have nerve agents as well as mustard gas, Scud missiles capable of delivering these lethal chemicals and a variety of advanced conventional arms, including anti-tank rockets and late-model portable anti-aircraft missiles.

During a televised news conference Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi stressed the weapons are secure and would only be used in the case of an external attack.

"No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria," he said. "All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression."

The Syrian government later tried to back off from the announcement, sending journalists an amendment to the prepared statement read out by Makdissi. The amendment said "all of these types of weapons -- IF ANY -- are in storage and under security." It was an attempt to return to Damascus' position of neither confirming nor denying the existence of non-conventional weapons.

In his comments to reporters, Makdissi also repeated the regime's assertion the country's 17-month-old conflict, which activists say has killed at least 19,000 people, is not the result of a popular uprising, casting it instead as the work of foreign extremists looking to destroy the nation.

Israel and the U.S. are concerned Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist militants should the regime in Damascus collapse. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Sunday his country would "have to act" if necessary to safeguard the arsenal from rogue elements.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday "any possible use of these kinds of weapons would be completely unacceptable."

"The Syrian regime has a responsibility to the world, has a responsibility first and foremost to its own citizens to protect and safeguard those weapons," she said, adding Washington is working with allies to monitor the situation and send the message to both Syria's government and opposition about the importance of protecting non-conventional weapons.

A senior U.S. intelligence official said Friday the Syrians have moved chemical weapons material from the country's north, where the fighting was fiercest, apparently to both secure and consolidate it, which U.S. officials considered a responsible step.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2012 A9

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