Story

Syria accuses U.S. of chemical weapons propaganda

BEIRUT: The US wants to oust the Damascus regime by raising fears overs its chemical weapons stockpiles, creating a scenario similar to that which led to the invasion of Iraq, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in an interview broadcast Monday.

"This issue (chemical weapons) is an invention of the American administration," Muallem told Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV in excerpts of an interview to be broadcast in full later Monday.

But Muallem remained vague on whether President Bashar al-Assad's regime possesses chemical weapons, despite Damascus acknowledging in July that it has such stockpiles.

"These chemical weapons in Syria, if they exist -- and I emphasise if -- how is it possible that we would use them against our own people? It's a joke," he said in the interview excerpts of which were broadcast by the staunchly anti-American and anti-Israeli channel.

"But this definitely does not mean that Syria has a stockpile of chemical weapons or that it intends to use these weapons against its own people ... it is a myth they invented to launch a campaign against Syria like they did in Iraq," he said in the interview given on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.

A US-led coalition had invaded Iraq in March 2003, accusing Saddam Hussein of possessing weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were ever found.

Damascus acknowledged for the first time in late July that it possessed chemical weapons. It threatened to use them if attacked by outside countries, but never against its own people.

The admission raised deep concerns among the international community, with the United States saying Damascus would be making a "tragic mistake" if it decided to deploy its chemical weapons arsenal.

Rebel fighters waging an armed insurrection against Assad's regime claimed in July that the Syrian government had moved some of these weapons to the country's borders.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Friday that the Syrian regime had moved some chemical weapons to safeguard the material as it wages war against the rebels. He said the main storage sites for its arsenal remain secure.

According to experts, these stocks, which amount to hundreds of tonnes, date back to the 1970s and are the largest in the Middle East.

Muallem also said that "the United States is now beginning to taste the poison of terrorism that it has supported," in reference to the September 11 assault on the US consulate in Benghazi that led to the death of the American ambassador to Libya.

"It seems that they (the Americans) have not learned their lesson in Afghanistan," added the foreign minister, in reference to the losses inflicted on NATO by the Taliban.

The minister reiterated that the "key to success" for the mission of international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is for countries which "harbour, arm and finance armed terrorist groups" to cease their activities.

"Qatar is spending billions of dollars in Syria to kill the Syrian people, to destroy the infrastructure ... and to murder doctors and engineers," he said.

Damascus accuses Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey of supporting the armed rebellion.

"Turkey is the source of most acts of violence in Syria," Muallem said, warning that "terrorism will turn against those who export it."

The minister, without elaborating, did not rule out a "general amnesty decree" aimed at "national reconciliation."

He also noted that Syria has a "strategic stock of wheat, food and medical supplies, which can last for several months."

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that three million Syrians are in urgent need of food and aid for grain crops and livestock.