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US official: Syrian rebels lack 'ability or intent' to use chemical weapons

A senior State Department official said Monday there is no indication that rebels fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad have “the ability or the intent” to use chemical weapons.

A member of the U.N. human rights commission, speaking to Swiss and Italian television a day earlier, had spoken of “concrete suspicions” that the rebels had used chemical weapons.

But the commissioner, Carla del Ponte, said that there was “not yet incontrovertible proof.” And the commission itself released a statement Monday to say that it had not reached a conclusion about the use of chemical weapons by either side in the two-year conflict, which has left an estimated 70,000 people dead.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the United States believes “with some degree of varying confidence” that Syria has used chemical weapons against its people, but President Barack Obama has said it is not clear who used the weapons and how.

An activist group opposed to the Syrian regime said Monday that an Israeli airstrike on Syrian military targets over the weekend killed at least 42 Syrian soldiers. The dead reportedly included elite troops stationed near the presidential palace.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group based in Britain, said its figure was based on sources at Syrian hospitals, The Associated Press reported. The New York Times quoted a high-ranking Syrian military official as saying dozens of elite troops had been killed.

Israeli jets bombed a military research facility north of Damascus, the capital, before dawn Sunday, a U.S. official told NBC News. Video shot by activists showed a fireball rising into the sky.

It was the second apparent Israeli strike in Syria in recent days. The first came Friday, U.S. officials said, when Israeli warplanes targeted a shipment of weapons headed for Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia that supports the Syrian government.

On Monday, Israel sought to persuade Assad that the strikes were not meant to weaken him.

“There are no winds of war,” said Yair Golan, the general commanding Israeli forces on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts, Reuters reported, quoting an Israeli news website. “Do you see tension? There is no tension. Do I look tense to you?”

Syria has accused Israel of trying to support the anti-Assad rebels, but analysts have said Israel is more likely trying to keep the Syrian government from sending weapons to Hezbollah, an avowed enemy of Israel.

Anti-regime activists also said Monday that Syrian rebels shot down a government helicopter in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, killing eight troops on board, the AP reported.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground for its reporting, posted a video showing several armed men standing in front of wreckage that one of the fighters says is a helicopter shot down late Sunday along Syria's border with Iraq.

As the man speaks, the camera shifts to a pickup truck piled with bodies. The fighter is then heard saying that all of Assad's troops who were aboard the helicopter were killed in the downing. He says Islamic fighters of the Abu Bakr Saddiq brigade brought down the helicopter as it was taking off from a nearby air base.

 

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