The Syrian regime has fired Scud missiles at rebel forces trying to oust Bashar al-Assad, a U.S. official said Wednesday, after Human Rights Watch (HRW) report warning that incendiary bombs were also used.
“Scuds landed within Syria,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Earlier Wednesday an AFP journalist in northwestern Syria reported hearing several fierce explosions daily from up to 15 kilometers (10 miles) away.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said “we’re seeing missiles employed now” but she refused to divulge intelligence on what type of missile.
But the U.S. official speaking later said he could confirm a New York Times story that the regime was unleashing Scuds.
There was no word of any casualties caused by the Soviet-era weapons, famously fired into Israel by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War.
A former Syrian officer who served in a battalion specialising in surface-to-surface missiles told AFP on Thursday regime forces had fired Scuds three days ago, but the government has denied this.
First Lieutenant Aaraba Idriss said he is still in contact with officers and members of his former Battalion 57, part of Brigade 155, despite defecting 10 months ago.
He said they told him they fired five Scud missiles for the first time on Monday from their location in Nasiriyeh on the highway between Damascus and the central Syrian city of Homs.
Idriss, who now heads the Hassan Battalion of the rebel Free Syrian Army, said "the missiles were fired northwest at 10:45 (0845 GMT), 12:30, 13:50, 15:15 and 17:10" and may have struck in Aleppo or Idlib province.
The unguided, short-range ballistic Scud missiles, depending on the type employed, have a range of 200 kilometers or more.
But the Syrian foreign ministry said on Thursday it "categorically denies rumours that the Syrian army has fired Scud missiles," state television reported.
"Biased and conspiratorial rumours are spreading in anti-Syrian circles that the Syrian army is using Scud missiles in response to armed terrorist groups when it is known that Scuds are strategic, long-range missiles and are not suited for use against armed terrorist gangs," a statement said.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, HRW warned that Syrian forces have dropped incendiary bombs on populated areas, calling on the authorities to stop using a weapon that causes “especially cruel human suffering”.
Most of the weapons found appeared to be two kinds of Soviet models, one of which releases 48 incendiary submunitions over an area the size of a football field, it said.
Incendiary weapons contain flammable materials such as napalm, thermite or white phosphorous, which can set fire to buildings or cause severe burns and respiratory damage.
“These weapons cause especially cruel civilian suffering and extensive property destruction when used in populated areas,” Reuters reported Steve Goose, director of the arms division of the New York-based rights group, as saying.
Putting further pressure on the Assad regime on Wednesday, Arab and Western states recognized the opposition National Coalition as the sole representative of Syrians.
The declaration, issued at a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Morocco, coincided with battlefield gains by jihadists fighting Assad’s forces and a rapidly deteriorating refugee situation as winter sets in.
“Today, full recognition is given to the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani told a news conference after the meeting his government hosted in Marrakesh.
The talks on the 21-month-old conflict brought together representatives from 114 countries, including about 60 ministers, the Syrian opposition and international organizations.
They came just a day after U.S. President Barack Obama endorsed the National Coalition, following a similar move by the European Union.
The Friends of Syria again called on Assad to stand down, and stressed that his regime would not escape punishment for violations of international law.
A statement also warned Damascus against using chemical weapons, saying this “would draw a serious response from the international community.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the growing recognition of the National Coalition as “real progress.”
“Then the important thing is to channel more assistance through them -- in our case... non-lethal assistance... and then of course we need more humanitarian aid.”
Those at the meeting also called for unimpeded access for humanitarian groups inside Syria.
Coalition spokesman Yaser Tabbara underlined hopes the Marrakesh meeting would help alleviate a mounting humanitarian crisis and support the needs of “liberated” areas, in terms of salaries and services, which the group estimates at nearly $500 million per month.
Under pressure to unite, the opposition agreed on November 11 to establish the coalition and group the various rebel forces under a supreme military council.
But jihadist rebels in Aleppo, a key front line in northern Syria, rejected the agreement, saying they want an Islamic state.
Among them is the Al-Nusra Front, which the United States blacklisted on Tuesday as a terrorist organisation, citing links to Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
National Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib called on Washington to “re-examine” the move.
“We can have ideological and political differences with certain parties, but the revolutionaries all share the same goal: to overthrow (Assad’s) criminal regime.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who led the U.S. delegation to the talks, said: “We have extended an invitation to Moaz al-Khatib and the coalition leadership to visit Washington at the earliest opportunity.”
But he defended the terror blacklisting.
“Al-Nusra, as the president made clear, is little more than a front for Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and all of us have seen what Al-Qaeda in Iraq tried to do to threaten the social fabric of Iraq,” Burns said.
With the total death toll from the civil war now topping 42,000, according to a rights monitor, the U.N. refugee agency said the number of Syrian refugees who had fled to neighboring states and North Africa had now passed half a million.
In the latest violence, at least seven people were killed and 50 wounded when three bombs struck the main entrance of the interior ministry in Damascus, a security official said.
Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar and other top ranking officials escaped unharmed, state television reported.
Other bombings in the capital killed four people and wounded another 26, the Observatory and news agency SANA reported.
The Observatory said 121 were killed nationwide, including 57 civilians.