SYRIA's foreign ministry acknowledged yesterday that the government had chemical and biological weapons, and said they could be used in case of external intervention.

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

Mr Assad's forces have launched counteroffensives, reflecting his determination to fight to hold on to power, and he has dismissed an Arab offer to grant him a safe exit if he gives up power swiftly.

Foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the army would not use chemical weapons to crush rebels, but they could be used against outside forces.

"Any chemical or bacterial weapons will never be used . during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments," Mr Makdissi said. "These weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces 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. As violence escalates, insurgents have said they fear Mr Assad's forces will resort to nonconventional weapons.

Western countries and Israel have expressed fears the weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups as Mr Assad's authority erodes and military defections rise. Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said the presence of chemicals weapons in Syria was a concern.

Mr Assad defied Qatar and Kuwati on Sunday who offered a "safe exit" if he stepped down swiftly. Arab League ministers meeting in Doha urged the opposition and the rebel Free Syrian Army to form a transitional government.

Mr Makdissi condemned calls for Mr Assad to step down, 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.

Reports said the army was behind a number of extrajudicial executions in districts of the capital, Damascus, the commercial capital Aleppo, and the eastern city of Deir al-Zor where rebels have launched an unsuccessful offensive.

The Syrian army ordered more than 1000 troops and allied militiamen into Damascus, backed by armoured vehicles, tanks and bulldozers, to crush fighting there.

Mr Assad's forces have lost ground outside major cities, ceding control of four border posts on the Turkish and Iraqi borders on Sunday. Rebels also seized an army infantry school in the town of Musalmiyeh 16km north of Aleppo, and captured several army officers, while others defected, a senior military defector in Turkey and rebel sources said.

In Brussels the European Union (EU) tightened an arms embargo on Syria and expanded other sanctions yesterday. The new embargo rules require EU countries to search aircraft and ships if they have "reasonable grounds" to suspect they are carrying arms, dual-use goods or equipment used for repression to Syria.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called the new sanctions "important to prevent, I hope, any arms reaching Syria".

The EU decision sharpens differences with Russia, which has blocked western moves to get a United Nations Security Council resolution threatening Syria with sanctions. All 27 EU countries must enforce the sanctions, including Cyprus which some western diplomats suspect is used by Russia as a shipment route to supply arms to Mr Assad. Cyprus's President Demetris Christofias dismissed the suspicions as "fairy tales".

Reuters

Itmar Rabinovich: page 9

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