WRAPUP 6-Syria fires Scud missiles at rebels -U.S., NATO officials

Samia Nakhoul and Khaled Yacoub Oweis
Reuters Middle East

* Western, Arab states formally recognise opposition bloc

* Western powers reluctant to supply weapons to rebels

* Insurgents close in on Damascus, explosion rocks capital

* US: Assad's forces use Scud missiles for first time

MARRAKECH, Morocco, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Syrian President

Bashar al-Assad's forces have fired Scud-style ballistic

missiles against rebels in recent days, U.S. and NATO officials

said on Wednesday, in what U.S. officials described as an

escalation in the 20-month civil war.

The United States, European powers and Arab states bestowed

their official blessing on Syria's newly-formed opposition

coalition on Wednesday, despite increasing signs of Western

unease at the rise of militant Islamists in the rebel ranks.

Rebels battled Assad's troops on the outskirts of his

Damascus power base. Their advances in the past two weeks have

prompted their international allies to talk of the 20-month-old

conflict finally entering a decisive phase.

In Damascus, a massive car bomb and two other explosions hit

the main gate of the Interior Ministry. Lebanon's al-Manar

television, which supports Assad's Hezbollah allies, said four

people had been killed.

"Allied intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets

have detected the launch of a number of unguided, short-range

ballistic missiles inside Syria this week," said a NATO official

in Brussels. "Trajectory and distance travelled indicate they

were Scud-type missiles."

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity,

confirmed the use of Scuds. U.S. officials said they were not

aware of any previous uses of the missiles.

It was not immediately clear why Assad's forces would deploy

Scuds, which can have a range of up to a few hundred km and are

best-known internationally from the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi

leader Saddam Hussein fired them at Israel.

The Soviet-designed missiles are unguided and inaccurate,

and are not usually seen as a weapon of choice for the sort of

internal anti-guerrilla war that the government is waging

against small, mobile rebel bands.

Assad's forces have in the past relied on artillery,

helicopters and attack jets, all of which are much more useful

in close urban combat. However, the lightly armed rebels are

increasingly obtaining better weapons to fight back, including

the ability to shoot down aircraft.

Last week NATO decided to deploy U.S., German and Dutch

batteries of Patriot air defence missiles along the

Turkish-Syrian border, saying its main worry was the prospect of

Syrian missiles being fired across the frontier.

That decision means hundreds of U.S. and European troops

being sent to the border for the first time since the war began

20 months ago. Syria and Russia called it a pretext for the

Western alliance to become drawn into the war.


Western countries at a "Friends of Syria" meeting in

Marrakech, Morocco rallied around a new opposition National

Coalition that was formed last month and is led by a moderate

Islamist cleric, Mouaz Alkhatib.

U.S. President Barack Obama recognised the coalition on

Tuesday as Syria's legitimate representatives, joining France,

Britain, Turkey and Gulf Arab states. Alkhatib was given an

invitation on Wednesday to visit the United States.

But Washington and its allies also remain wary of Sunni

Islamist fighters among the rebels, some of whom they say are

connected to al Qaeda. The United States designated one powerful

rebel group, the Jabhat al-Nusra brigade, as a terrorist

organisation, a decision Alkhatib said should be reversed.

The Marrakech gathering brought together more than 100

countries, led by Western and Arab nations opposed to Assad, but

excluding Russia, China and Iran, which have backed Assad or

blocked efforts to tighten international pressure on him.

"Participants acknowledge the National Coalition as the

legitimate representative of the Syrian people and the umbrella

organisation under which the Syrian opposition are gathering,"

said a declaration after the meeting.

"Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy and should stand aside

to allow a sustainable political transition," the text said.

Referring to Western reports suggesting Assad might resort

to chemical or biological weapons, the text said "any use of

chemical weapons in Syria would be abhorrent and that this would

draw a serious response from the international community".

Syria, which has not signed a treaty banning chemical arms,

says it would never use such weapons against its own people and

accuses the West of stoking such fears to justify intervention.

The Marrakech text made no commitment to arm the insurgents,

and France said it was not ready to supply weapons.

"For now we have decided not to move on this," French

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Morocco. "We

shall see in the coming months."

A Western diplomat at the meeting said Western powers did

not rule out arming rebel units in the future, but want

assurances about who would get the weapons.

"No option is ruled out. But there are big issues about the

legality of intervening in a civil war. Any support to any group

depends on the command control and the discipline on the

ground," the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The Syrian state news agency SANA said Obama's recognition

of the political opposition, which coincided with Washington's

classification of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation,

"proves American hypocrisy".

Russia also criticised the U.S. recognition, saying it ran

counter to an agreement to seek political transition. Foreign

Minister Sergei Lavrov said that it appeared the United States

was betting on "armed victory" of Assad's opponents.


The rise of Jabhat al-Nusra to prominence has clearly

alarmed the United States, which is worried about Assad being

replaced by radicals linked to al Qaeda.

Jabhat al-Nusra recruits Islamist fighters from around the

Muslim world. Its precise numbers are not clear but its Syrian

and foreign guerrillas are powerful in the northern Syrian

cities of Aleppo and Idlib. They have used suicide attacks to

target checkpoints and now take the lead in attacks on army

bases in northern Syria.

Alkhatib, the opposition coalition leader, said Washington

should reconsider its designation of the group as terrorists.

"The decision to consider a party that is fighting the

regime as a terrorist party needs to be reviewed," he said.

"We might disagree with some parties and their ideas and

their political and ideological vision. But we affirm that all

the guns of the rebels are aimed at overthrowing the tyrannical

criminal regime."

The West blames the Syrian government and allied Alawite

militias for most of the 40,000 deaths in the 20-month conflict

against mainly Sunni Muslim rebels. Civilians from both sects

have been victims of atrocities.

Activists say as many as 200 Alawites were either injured or

killed on Tuesday by rampaging gunmen in Aqrab, a central Syrian

village. Details of the incident were impossible to verify.

Fighting is moving closer to Assad's residence in the centre

of Damascus. Early on Wednesday government forces fired

artillery and rockets at southwestern suburbs of the capital

adjacent to the Mezzeh military airport, activists said.

A resident reported sirens and shooting after a "huge

explosion" in Kafar Souseh, location of the Interior Ministry,

in an area contested by rebels and forces loyal to Assad.

SANA said on Wednesday that "terrorists" had also detonated

two bombs in the Damascus district of Jaramana, killing one

person and wounding five.

The rebels now hold a near continuous arc of territory from

the east to the southwest of the capital. With conditions

deteriorating, Damascus residents face power and food crises.

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