Syrian spokesman flees, diplomat says as US warns on chemical weapons
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Rebels have begun to advance more quickly after months of slow sieges to cut off army routes and supplies. In the past few weeks, they seized several military bases, and are now using anti-aircraft weapons to attack the military helicopters and fighter jets that had bombarded their positions with impunity.
Media reports citing European and U.S. officials said Syria's chemical weapons had been moved and could be prepared for use in response - long a fear raised by the opposition.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said U.S. concerns about Syria's intentions regarding the use of chemical weapons were increasing, prompting Washington to make contingency plans.
Syria said it would not use chemical weapons against its own people: "Syria has stressed repeatedly that it will not use these types of weapons, if they were available, under any circumstances against its people," the foreign ministry said.
Obama, who has steered clear of repeating in Syria the kind of military engagements Washington has seen in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, later repeated a warning to Assad - vaguely worded - against using chemical weapons to keep himself in power: "The world is watching," Obama said. "The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable and if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."
The army appears to have focused most of its energy on Damascus, where rebels have been planning to push into the capital from the surrounding suburbs.
The military has been trying to seal off the city, using heavy bombardment and air raids to try to drive rebels back.
Over 56 people were killed around Damascus alone on Sunday, with 200 dead across the country.
Damascus itself has not been free of unrest. Rebel-held southern districts have been bombarded heavily, activists say.