Syrian officials deny use of chemical weapons

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Two Syrian officials denied Friday that government forces had used chemical weapons against rebels, the first response from President Bashar Assad’s regime to U.S. assertions that it had deployed such weapons during the 2-year-old civil war.

On Thursday, the White House and other top Obama administration officials said that U.S. intelligence had concluded with “varying degrees of confidence” that the Syrian government has twice used chemical weapons in its battle against rebels trying to oust Assad.

In the Syrian capital of Damascus, a government official said Assad’s military “did not and will not use chemical weapons even if it had them.” Instead, he accused opposition forces of using them in a March attack on the village of Khan al-Assal outside of the northern city of Aleppo, the largest in Syria. The official said the Syrian army had no need to use chemical weapons because it can reach any area in Syria it wants without them.

He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.

His comments were echoed by Sharif Shehadeh, a Syrian lawmaker, who said the Syrian army “can win the war with traditional weapons” and has no need for chemical weapons.

Syria’s official policy is not to confirm nor deny it has chemical weapons.

Shehadeh called the U.S. claims “lies” and likened them to false accusations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction — a claim U.S. policymakers had used to justify the invasion of that country in 2003.

“What is being designed for Syria now is similar to what happened in Iraq when Colin Powell lied in the Security Council and said Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction prior to the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country,” he said.

President Barack Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that could result in a significant military response. But the administration said on Thursday that the new revelation won’t immediately change its stance on intervention.

Following the Khan al-Assal attack, the government called for the United Nations to investigate alleged chemical weapons use by rebels.

Syria, however, has still not allowed a team of experts into the country because it wants the investigation limited to the single Khan al-Assal incident while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging the Syrian government to accept an expanded U.N. probe into alleged chemical weapons use.

“They want this team to be similar to the inspection teams in Iraq that destroyed the country after it became clear that it was all a great lie,” Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said in comments published on Syria’s state-run news agency SANA.

On the streets of Damascus, the conflict dragged on Friday. Government troops pushed into two northern neighborhoods, triggering heavy fighting with rebels as they tried to advance under air and artillery support, activists said. The drive was the latest in a days-long offensive by government forces in and around the capital, an apparent bid to secure Assad’s main stronghold against rebel challenges.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting between rebels and soldiers backed by pro-government militiamen was concentrated in the Jobar and Barzeh areas. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said troops also used mortars and multiple rocket launchers to bombard the nearby neighborhood of Qaboun.

SANA said troops killed five rebels in clashes near the main mosque in Jobar. It added that many other “terrorists,” the term the government uses for rebels, were killed in the area and the nearby neighborhood of Zamalka.

The regime has largely kept the rebels at bay in Damascus, although opposition fighters control several suburbs of the capital from which they have threatened the heart of the city. Last month, government troops launched a campaign to repel the opposition’s advances near the capital, deploying elite army units to the rebellious suburbs and pounding rebel positions with airstrikes.

The Observatory also reported clashes in Aleppo between rebels and Kurdish gunmen in the contested Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood. It also said there was fighting around the sprawling Abu Zuhour air base in the northwestern Idlib province.

Syria’s conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime in March 2011 but later degenerated into a civil war, which has left an estimated 70,000 dead.

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AP reporter Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut.

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