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Turkey cites Syria chemical weapon concern

ANKARA, Turkey, Dec. 3 (UPI) —

Turkey asked NATO for Patriot missile defenses after learning Syria has contemplated using chemical weapons against rebels, Turkish officials told The Guardian.

The officials told the British newspaper they had credible evidence that if the Syrian government’s aerial bombardment against opposition-held areas failed to subdue the rebels, the regime of President Bashar Assad would consider using missiles topped with chemical warheads in a desperate last effort to survive.

Turkey believes the regime is preparing in case it decides to use Soviet Cold War-era Scud and North Korean SS-21 Scarab tactical ballistic missiles against rebel forces, the officials said.

The missiles would likely be aimed at opposition areas but could easily stray across the border with Turkey, as Syrian army artillery shells and mortars have done, Turkish officials said.

A missile, especially with a chemical warhead, would represent a far more serious threat to Turkish border communities than artillery shells. So Ankara asked NATO last month to supply it with Patriot missile-defense systems, which can spot incoming missiles and intercept them, the officials said.

"We have intelligence from different sources that the Syrians will use ballistic missiles and chemical warheads," a senior Turkish official told the newspaper.

"First they sent the infantry in against the rebels and they lost a lot of men, and many changed sides," the official said. "Then they sent in the tanks, and they were taken out by anti-tank missiles. So now it’s air power. If that fails it will be missiles, perhaps with chemical warheads. That is why we asked NATO for protection."

Western intelligence officials told The New York Times they’d picked up new signs of activity at sites in Syria used to store chemical weapons.

"It’s in some ways similar to what they’ve done before," a senior U.S. official told the newspaper. "But they’re doing some things that suggest they intend to use the weapons. It’s not just moving stuff around. These are different kind of activities."

The official didn’t say what the activities were, but said they did not include the most blatant steps, such as preparing weapons to be fired by artillery batteries or loaded in bombs to be dropped from warplanes.

Regime forces bombarded opposition strongholds in Damascus Sunday, firing rockets into suburban neighborhoods where rebels have advanced in recent days, anti-regime activists said.

Clashes also raged for a fourth day around Damascus International Airport, activists said. The regime said the airport was open and flights operated on schedule.

Separately, a car bomb exploded in an upscale neighborhood of the western-central city of Homs, killing at least 15 people and wounding more than 20 others, some critically, state media reported.

Many Syrians fleeing fighting elsewhere in the city have settled in the Almalab neighborhood, The Washington Post said.

The activist Local Coordination Committees of Syria said 202 people were killed in fighting across Syria Sunday. The dead included 82 in Damascus and suburbs and 29 in and around Homs. Most of the 29 were killed in the explosion and in villages in the Houla region just north of Homs that was the scene of a massacre of 108 people, including 34 women and 49 children, in May.

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