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Obama warns Syria over chemical arms as fighting flares

US President Barack Obama has warned Syria that Washington will not tolerate any deployment of chemical weapons, as fighting raged from the north to the south of the country.

WASHINGTON // US President Barack Obama warned Syria yesterday that Washington will not tolerate any deployment of chemical weapons, as fighting raged from the north to the south of the country.

Obama put Bashar Al Assad's Syrian regime on notice that, while he had not ordered intervention "at this point," Washington is "monitoring the situation very carefully," and has put together a range of contingency plans.

"There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons... That would change my calculations significantly," he told reporters at a White House briefing.

The president added that the United States would regard any recourse by Damascus to its deadly arsenal as crossing what he dubbed a "red line."

Syria's admission in July that it has chemical weapons and could use them in case of any "external aggression" added a dangerous new dimension to a conflict which the new UN peace envoy already describes as civil war.

More than 130 people were killed Monday, including two children in shelling in Daraa, the birthplace of the revolution, a watchdog said, as the United Nations brought an end to its troubled observer mission.

And a female Japanese journalist died in Aleppo, where she was covering clashes between troops and rebel fighters in Suleiman Al Halabi, a district of Syria's commercial capital, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Three other reporters are missing -- a Lebanese woman, an Arab male working for a US media outlet and a Turkish national, the Observatory said.

Lakhdar Brahimi, who has replaced Kofi Annan as the international point man for Syria, warned on Sunday that it was now a matter of stopping rather than avoiding civil war after 17 months of bloodshed.

"There are a lot of people who say that we must avoid civil war in Syria, me I believe that we are already there for some time now. What's necessary is to stop the civil war and that is not going to be easy," he said.

But Syria -- which insists it is fighting an insurgency by "armed terrorist groups" backed by the West, Gulf states and Turkey -- reacted angrily.

"To speak of civil war in Syria contradicts reality and is found only in the heads of conspirators," the foreign ministry said in a statement carried by the state SANA news agency.

This came as French President Francois Hollande bluntly told Brahimi at a meeting in Paris there "cannot be a political solution without the departure of Bashar Al Assad."

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory, meanwhile, reported fierce fighting across the country on the second day of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday celebrated by Muslims around the world to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

The Observatory said troops backed by helicopters also pounded several areas of Aleppo, including the local Baath party headquarters and a military tribunal in the northern city.

An AFP correspondent said warplanes and helicopters circled Aleppo all day, and reported heavy fighting in southwestern districts, where the regime's military operation against rebels is focused.

"Where can we go, we don't have anywhere to go," lamented Tahani, 40, one of a group of women sheltering with children in the entrance of a house.

"In this situation having children is a curse. If it were just me, I wouldn't be afraid but I am always afraid for them."

Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital, has become the epicenter of the conflict since rebels seized large swathes of the city in a July offensive. Government officials have said its recapture will be the "mother of all battles."

The opposition Syrian National Council complained that government forces using combat helicopters, tanks and heavy artillery have carried out "savage" attacks on Herak, warning that food and medicines are running out.

Fighting also flared in southern parts of Damascus as the army battles persistent pockets of resistance despite claiming it retook most of the capital last month. In the province, 29 people were killed, half of them civilians.

UN observers wound up their troubled mission on Sunday amid a failure by world powers to agree how to respond to Assad's crackdown and bring peace to the strategic Middle East state.

Its operations were largely suspended in June and observer numbers cut back in the face of the mounting violence, as both sides violated a ceasefire that was meant to have been the cornerstone of Annan's plan for peace.

A total of 23,000 people have now been killed since March last year, according to the Observatory, while the UN puts the death toll at around 17,000.

The conflict has raised fears of a spillover of violence into neighboring countries, most notably Lebanon.

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