The USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and four other ships in its strike group moved into the Red Sea early on Monday, U.S. defense officials said, describing the move as "prudent planning" in case the vessels were needed for military action against Syria.
The development came as NATO's chief said he was certain Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime was behind the August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus.
A French government source, meanwhile, told Reuters that a declassified French intelligence report forces released Monday showed that forces loyal to Assad carried out a "massive and coordinated" chemical attack on August 21.
U.S. officials said that the strike group sent to the Red Sea had not received any orders to move into the Mediterranean, where five U.S. destroyers and an amphibious ship remain poised for possible cruise missile strikes against Syria.
The nuclear-powered Nimitz is accompanied by the Princeton, a cruiser, and three destroyers – the William P. Lawrence, Stockdale and Shoup, according to the officials.
The U.S. Navy doubled its presence in the eastern Mediterranean in the past week, effectively adding two destroyers to the three that generally patrol the region.
The destroyers are carrying a combined load of about 200 Tomahawk missiles, but officials say a limited strike on Syria could be accomplished with half that number.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday backed off imminent strikes by five destroyers off the coast of Syria until Congress had time to vote its approval. Defense officials said the delay gave them more time to reassess which ships and other weapons will be kept in the region – and whether some may be allowed to leave. Congress returns to Washington September 9.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday he had seen evidence convincing him that Syrian authorities were behind a deadly chemical weapons attack and said it would send a "dangerous signal to dictators" if the world did not react with a "firm response".
"I have been presented with concrete information and, without going into details, I can tell you that personally I am convinced, not only that a chemical attack has taken place ..., but I am also convinced that the Syrian regime is responsible," Rasmussen told a news conference.
Rasmussen said there was "agreement that we need a firm international response in order to avoid that chemical attacks take place in the future. It would send, I would say, a dangerous signal to dictators all over the world if we stand idly by and don't react."
However, he stressed that it was up to individual NATO countries to decide how they would respond to the attack and he did not envisage any NATO role beyond existing plans to defend NATO member Turkey, which borders Syria.
'A massive and coordinated' chemical attack
The nine-page French intelligence document - issued by external and military intelligence services and to be presented to lawmakers later on Monday - lays out five points that suggest Assad was behind 'a massive and coordinated' chemical attack. "This poses a major threat to national and global security," the source said.
The intelligence includes satellite imagery showing the attacks coming from government-controlled areas to the east and west of Damascus and targeting rebel-held zones. The source said Assad's forces had since bombed the areas to wipe out evidence.
"Unlike previous attacks that used small amounts of chemicals and were aimed at terrorizing people, this attack was tactical and aimed at regaining territory," the source said.
Senior members of France's ruling party on Monday rebuffed opposition calls for a parliamentary debate, saying lawmakers should respect the president's constitutional right to decide on attacks.
With opinion polls showing up to two-thirds of the public would oppose an intervention in Syria, several conservative, centrist and green politicians called over the weekend for France to hold a special parliamentary vote.
Parliament was due to debate the Syria crisis on Wednesday.
Also on Monday, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament told President Vladimir Putin that lawmakers wanted to travel to Washington to urge the U.S. Congress not to back Obama's plan for military strikes on Syria
Dismissing U.S. accusations that the Syrian government had killed hundreds of its own people with poison gas as nothing but "talk," senior legislator Valentina Matviyenko said both chambers were ready to send delegations.
Russia is one of Assad's main allies and has already blocked several Western-led resolutions in the U.N. Security Council to sanction him over his crackdown on a now 2-1/2-year-old uprising.
"I think if we manage to establish a dialogue with our partners in the U.S. Congress, to exchange arguments, we could possibly better understand each other," Matviyenko, speaker of the Federation Council, told Putin at his residence near Moscow.
"We hope that the U.S. Congress will occupy a balanced position in the end and without strong arguments in place ... will not support the proposal on use of force in Syria," Matviyenko added.
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