Panetta: Syria has moved chemical weapons to increase security
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says U.S. intelligence shows major Syrian sites are secure in government hands, but some chemicals have been moved; Rebels, troops face 'decisive battle in Aleppo.'
Syrians have moved some of their chemical weapons capability to better secure it, but the country's main chemical weapons sites remain intact and secure under government control, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Friday, citing U.S. intelligence.
Responding to questions about the security of Syria's chemical weapons sites, Panetta said U.S. intelligence showed the major Syrian sites were secure in government hands, but some chemicals had been moved.
It was not clear when the movement took place, or even if it was recent, but Panetta told a Pentagon news conference it had occurred in more than one case.
"There has been some intelligence that with regards to some of these sites, that there has been some movement in order for the Syrians to better secure ... the chemicals," he said. "So while there's been some limited movement, again the major sites still remain in place, still remain secure."
U.S. officials believe Syria potentially has dozens of chemical and biological weapons sites scattered across the country. Its stockpiles are thought to include nerve agents such as VX, sarin and tabun.
An 18-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad has killed 30,000 people and the violence is escalating sharply, say activists. World powers are divided over the crisis, which has descended into civil war.
While the United States has not intervened militarily in Syria, President Barack Obama has warned Assad that any attempt to deploy or use chemical or biological weapons would cross a "red line" that could provoke U.S. action.
"We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is (if) we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," Obama said in late August. "That would change my calculus."
'Decisive battle' for Aleppo
Fierce fighting erupted on Friday between Syrian troops and rebels for control of Aleppo, the country's biggest city, where a major rebel group announced the start of a "decisive battle."
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), a key rebel group, began its offensive overnight by shelling several army strongholds inside the northern city, reported activists.
Both sides have been fighting in Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub, for more than two months now, with neither making long-lasting gains.
"Aleppo is a key area for the rebels because if it fell under their control, it would give the opposition a major strategic victory and a clear passageway to the Turkish border," said Wehbe Katischa, a Lebanese military expert.
Syrian state television said troops, in cooperation with local residents, "confronted an armed terrorist group" trying to attack the district of Sheikh Maksoud, a Kurdish area in Aleppo, and inflicted heavy casualties on the group.
Syrian official media uses the term "terrorists" to refer to rebels fighting to oust the regime of President Bashar Assad.