Syria threatened Monday that it could use chemical or biological weapons against "external aggression," but not against its own people, and dismissed an Arab League call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
The Syrian warning was severely criticized by Germany, Britain and the United States.
"To threaten the use of chemical weapons is outrageous. The Syrian regime is once again revealing its inhuman way of thinking," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
"It is unacceptable to say that they would use chemical weapons under any circumstances," Britain's William Hague told reporters in Brussels. "This again demonstrates the sort of regime that we are dealing with. The sooner it comes to an end, the better."
Pentagon spokesman George Little said: "The Syrian regime is already responsible for unacceptable levels of deplorable violence against the Syrian population, and they should not think one iota about using chemical weapons."
European Union foreign ministers said the bloc was "seriously concerned" about chemical weapons, although EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said there was no "immediate concern about the possibility of them being taken out or moved."
Earlier, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi said such weapons would "never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression."
Makdisi emphasized that as long as the country's 16-month uprising remained an internal affair, the weapons would not be used. "Any chemical or biological weapons will never be used during the crisis in Syria, however that crisis develops within Syria."
His comments came hours after the Arab League called for more direct action against the al-Assad regime, and promised safe passage for the president and his family should he resign.
Also on Monday, the EU tightened an arms embargo against Syria, and in its 17th round of sanctions blocked flights to and from the country and blacklisted two dozen people.
The bloc had instituted an arms embargo on Syria in May 2011, but has now tightened the measure by obliging EU countries to inspect ships and planes bound for the country "if they suspect the cargo contains arms or equipment for internal repression."
EU ministers in Brussels again ruled out providing weapons to the opposition or staging a foreign military intervention, noting that they were "seriously concerned about the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria."
Makdisi said Syria was facing a "coordinated political campaign aimed at justifying and preparing international public opinion for intervention, on the pretext of weapons of mass destruction".
He said that any chemical weapons were monitored and guarded by the army and that Syria "has previously conveyed the import of this statement to states that expressed concern regarding the acquisition and use of unconventional weapons by third parties."
Makdisi also dismissed suggestions of safe passage for the al-Assad family. "We are sorry that the Arab League has descended to this level concerning a member state of this institution," he told reporters, adding that "this decision only concerns the Syrian people."
The Arab League called for the establishment of "safe zones" to protect Syrian citizens and allow Arab and international aid organizations to carry out humanitarian work.
Late Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki instructed security forces and the Red Crescent to allow Syrian refugees into Iraq, according to Iraqiya state television. Baghdad has so far refrained from accepting refugees.
To date, 125,000 people have left Syria for Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said at a meeting in Nicosia.
An estimated 1 million people are internally displaced, Malmstrom told a gathering of EU interior ministers.
The EU was considering setting up a refugee aid plan and was boosting humanitarian assistance to help countries neighbouring Syria deal with the worsening refugee crisis.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 42 people were killed across the country.
It also said that 15 bodies were discovered in Basatin near Damascus, some with their hands tied, as government forces continued to regain control over areas of the capital that saw fierce fighting over the past week.
"Syrian troops regained control of Mezzeh and Barzeh after rebels made a tactical withdrawal," activist Haytham al-Abdulah told dpa, adding that about 30 people, mainly rebels, were killed in fighting Monday.
Activists reported that about 1,000 soldiers backed by tanks carried out the offensive, which started Sunday. State television said that "government troops have cleansed most areas in the capital from terrorists."
Clashes continued in Aleppo, while activists at the northern border told dpa that rebels had full control of the Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey and were advancing southwards on Aleppo.
Most Popular Stories
- SEO Traffic Lab Celebrate Wins at Digital Marketing Event 'Internet World 2013' in London
- Social Media Initiatives Should Follow Customers' Lead
- Apple CEO: Offshore Units Not a 'Tax Gimmick'
- U.S. Senate Accuses Apple of Large-scale Tax Avoidance
- UTEP Water Recycling Project Wins Venture Titles
- Marketo Makes a Mint in IPO: Stock Shoots Up More than 50 Percent
- Bieber Booed at Billboard Awards
- Crude Oil Up, Gasoline Down
- Austin Startup Compare Metrics Raises $3.5 Million for Expansion
- Why So Many Top 'Car Guys' Are Actually Women