NATO approves Turkey missiles, warns Syria on chemical arms
NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday approved the deployment of Patriot defence missiles to Turkey, as neighbouring Syria faced mounting warnings that there would be international retaliation if it used chemical weapons in its fight against rebels, dpa reported.
The deployment decision came at the behest of Turkey - a member of the military alliance - and followed sporadic cross-border rocket exchanges with Syrian regime forces.
"The situation along NATO's south-eastern border and the repeated violations of Turkey's territory raise grave concern," the 28 ministers said in a joint statement after talks in Brussels. "NATO's ultimate task is the protection and defence of our members."
"To the Turkish people we say: we are determined to defend you and your territory. To anyone who would want to attack Turkey we say: don't even think about it," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen added.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westwerwelle expressed hope that the deployment would also have "a preventive effect and would contribute to preventing a conflagration in the whole region."
Final approval for the deployment now has to come from Germany, the Netherlands and the United States - the three countries to have the Patriot systems available. Technical details such as the number of missiles and their locations still have to be worked out.
Westerwelle said he expected "a broad parliamentary backing" for the move back home, while Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said he felt his country has "an obligation as a NATO ally to help protect NATO's borders."
Once the domestic approval processes are complete, the deployment would follow "within weeks," Rasmussen predicted.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after talks with the NATO ministers that his country would not stand in the way, but also noted that "threats should not be overstated." He argued that Syrian attacks on Turkey had not been "intentional."
Moscow has repeatedly blocked US Security Council resolution condemning Syria, fearing a repeat of the NATO mission in Libya.
Both Turkish and NATO officials have insisted that the Patriot deployment will be defensive only and that they will not support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation.
Syria faced sharp criticism, however, on fresh reports that some of its chemical weapons had been moved.
"The fact that the forces of the Assad regime are losing ground" could lead people to think that "the regime might contemplate using these weapons," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
He joined other ministers in declaring any use of chemical weapons by Syria "unacceptable," with Rasmussen saying he "would expect an immediate reaction from the international community."
Lavrov said Moscow too would "not accept any violation of related international treaties," but also described prior reports of chemical weapon preparations as "rumours."
In Syria, violence between government and rebels forces continued Tuesday, with activists reporting 123 people killed.
Television reports said that a mortar shell smashed into Bteiha school in Wafideen camp, about 20 kilometres north-east of Damascus, killing 29 students and their teacher.
Wafideen is home to some 25,000 people displaced from the Golan Heights by the Israeli occupation since 1967.
Clashes were also reported near Damascus International Airport.
The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel-Rahman, told dpa that "the army is trying at all costs to keep the rebels out of Damascus while rebels were pushing hard to enter the city." But "key advances" were yet to be made.
The fate of Syrian government spokesman Jihad Makdissi, meanwhile, remained unknown after conflicting reports said he had defected and had moved to London with his family. He is a prominent Christian figure who was close to al-Assad's inner circle.
"We still cannot confirm if he was sacked, quit or defected, or even that he has arrived in London," a source inside the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) told dpa.
News coming out from Syria cannot be confirmed, as journalists are banned from entering the country.
In Lebanon, sporadic clashes Tuesday in the northern port city of Tripoli between anti and pro-Syrian followers killed two people and injured nine, among them two army soldiers.
Tripoli has repeatedly been the locus of sectarian conflict linked to the Syrian crisis.