BEIRUT // The Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad admitted for the first time yesterday that it had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
The regime also said it would use the weapons if it were attacked by a foreign power, a blunt threat described by the German foreign minister as "outrageous".
Jihad Makdissi, Syria's foreign ministry spokesman, said the weapons were secure and insisted they would not be used against the Syrian people.
"No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria," he said.
"All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression."
As chaos grips more of the country, there are growing concerns about Syria's stockpile of non-conventional weapons, believed to be among the largest in the region and to include nerve agents and mustard gas.
The United States believes Syrian authorities recently moved chemical weapons material from the north, where there has been intense fighting.
"They should not think one iota about using chemical weapons," the Pentagon press secretary George Little said yesterday. "We have been very strong in our statements inside the US government on the prospective use of chemical weapons and it would be entirely unacceptable."
The United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be "reprehensible".
Israel has not ruled out military action to prevent the weapons from being used against it.
After a week of fierce fighting in Damascus between government forces and rebels fighting to topple the Assad regime, Mr Makdissi said yesterday the situation in the capital was being brought under control.
However, while the fighting in the capital appeared to have eased, activists still reported further clashes and continuing military operations.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 23 people had been "summarily executed" on Sunday by government forces in the Damascus neighbourhoods of Mazeh and Barzeh.
The dead had been shot and some of the bodies bore signs of torture. It was not clear if they were civilians or opposition fighters.
The opposition Local Coordination Committees said 20 bodies had been found in Barzeh.
The violence also continued in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, with clashes in the neighbourhoods of Hanano and Sakhour, according to the UK-based Observatory. Rebels announced on Sunday that they were launching an operation to "liberate" the city, which is Syria's commercial hub.
At least 82 people died across Syria yesterday, according to the LCC.
While diplomatic efforts have failed to bring an end to the crisis, the Arab League - which last year suspended Syria's membership - yesterday urged Mr Al Assad to step down as president and said he and his family would be offered "safe exit" from Syria.
Damascus dismissed the calls, and the Iraqi government said it did not back calls for Mr Al Assad to step aside.
"The Iraqi delegation put forward their reservation," said Iraq's government spokesman Ali Al Dabbagh. "It is not usual for the ministerial council to ask someone to leave. This is the sole responsibility of the Syrian people and others should not interfere."
However, the Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki reversed a previous decision and called on Iraqi authorities to allow Syrian refugees into the country and provide them with support.
As Syria faces growing international isolation, the European Union moved to impose more sanctions and a stricter arms embargo. New rules would require EU member states to search planes and ships if there were reasonable grounds to suspect they may be transporting weapons.
"These sanctions are important because they will allow ships to be examined to see what cargo they're carrying, and that will prevent, I hope, any arms reaching Syria," said Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief.
The tighter sanctions mean Syria's national airline will be banned from landing at EU airports, except in emergencies. Travel bans and asset freezes were also placed on an additional 26 Syrian officials.
Lebanon's president Michel Suleiman accused Syria of violating his country's territory after repeated cross-border incidents, including firing into Lebanese areas.
Mr Suleiman has instructed the country's foreign minister Adnan Mansour to deliver a letter of objection to Syria's envoy to Beirut.
* With additional reporting by Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse