Syria vowed on Monday not to use chemical weapons
against its own people after US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham
Clinton warned that the United States would take action if this were
"Syria confirms repeatedly it will never, under any circumstances, use chemical weapons against its own people, if such weapons exist," state-run television quoted a Foreign Ministry official as saying.
Clinton's remarks to reporters in Prague came after media reports quoted US officials as saying that President Bashar al-Assad's government had moved chemical weapons, raising fears he could use them against rebels making gains in their fight to overthrow him.
"Once again we issue a very strong warning to the Assad regime that their behaviour is reprehensible," Clinton said. "Their actions against their own people have been tragic. We are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur."
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "We are concerned that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be considering the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people."
Carney added: "And as the president has said, any use or proliferation of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would cross a red line for the United States."
The rebels have made significant gains in recent weeks after months of stalemate, capturing military bases and in recent days making a push to capture the main civilian airport in Damascus.
The advances raise the risk of the regime using chemical weapons, observers say.
Clinton's warning came as the leaders of Russia, Syria's main ally, and Turkey, which backs the rebels, met in Istanbul to discuss the conflict, on which they are divided.
"We are not protecting the regime, and we are not advocates for (the Syrian regime)... what worries us is the future of Syria," Russian President Vladimir Putin said after talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Putin was scheduled to meet Erdogan in October, but the visit was postponed after Turkey said it had found Russian-made military equipment on a Damascus-bound Syrian plane, which was forced to land in Ankara. Russia and Syria brushed off those claims.
Putin aide Yuri Ushakov was quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency as acknowledging differences between the two countries over Syria.
"Our purpose is to show that Russia's stance in this situation is the most constructive and correct one," he was quoted as saying.
The talks were also expected to touch on Russia's objection to Turkey's request with NATO to deploy Patriot missiles near its border with Syria.
The rebels are making a push for Damascus and capturing its airport would be a major blow to al-Assad.
Syrian forces used fighter jets and artillery fire on Monday to pound rebel-held areas around the airport, while rebels claimed they had cut electricity to the facility.
State television said troops struck hard at "terrorist bases" near the airport and the battle "to protect Damascus" continues.
Activists in Damascus said that groups of army "special forces" were seen deploying near the airport road and its outskirts.
An Egypt air flight which was bound to Damascus could not land Syria due to "bad situation near the airport" and turned back to Cairo, an Egypt air official said.
The airport came to a complete halt last Friday when rebels and troops clashed near the complex, prompting several airlines to suspend flights to Damascus.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, reported that government forces were enhancing posts near the airport, as well as near the Mezzeh military airport.
Both transport facilities are key for the regime, especially the Mezzeh airport, as it is the closet to the presidential palace in the capital, Observatory head Rami Abdul-Rahman told dpa.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said 50 people were killed on Monday.
The escalating violence prompted the United Nations to announce it was pulling non-essential personnel out of Syria.
"The situation in Damascus in particular, but also across the country, has become more precarious," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Nesirky said leaders of the UN mission in Damascus were to meet to assess the situation and decide who among the personnel should leave Syria.
Meanwhile, Arab media reports said that Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi was either sacked or resigned from his post. Other reports said he had defected.
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