The United Nations is pulling staff out of Syria because of deteriorating security conditions as fighting between rebels and government forces raged near the capital Damascus.
Meanwhile Lebanese security officials said Jihad Makdissi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman known for defending the regime of President Bashar Assad in fluent English, flew from Beirut to London, but it was not immediately clear whether he had defected.
The fighting over the past few weeks in and around Damascus has been the most serious in the capital since July, when rebels captured several neighbourhoods before a swift government counter-offensive swept them out.
The surge in violence recently is concentrated in the ring of mostly poor suburbs around Damascus but often bleeds into the capital itself as rebels bring their fight closer to Assad’s seat of power.
Assad’s forces have so far repelled major rebel advances on the capital, though their hold may be slipping.
“The security situation has become extremely difficult, including in Damascus,” said Radhouane Nouicer, the UN’s regional humanitarian co-ordinator for Syria.
He said the UN was withdrawing most of its international staff from Syria due to security issues, adding that up to a quarter of the 100 international staff working for several UN agencies could leave by the end of the week. There are about 900 more local staff working for the world body in Syria.
UN teams are also stopping most staff trips outside Damascus.
In another sign of deteriorating security, an Egyptian commercial jet aborted a trip to Damascus in mid-flight because of violence near the airport. The EgyptAir flight from Cairo rerouted about 30 minutes after take-off because Egyptian officials received word from their counterparts in Damascus that the area near the airport was not safe, Egyptian airport chiefs said.
EgyptAir cancelled all further flights to Syria yesterday and today and will decide whether to resume flights later in the week, the officials said.
EgyptAir had just resumed flights following a three-day suspension because of violence near the airport.
Emirates airlines said on its website that all flights to Syria were suspended “until further notice”.
British-based opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the clashes were within two miles of the airport, about 15 miles south east of the city centre. The state news service reported clashes in an area about nine miles from the airport. It said nothing about flight cancellations.
More than 40,000 people have been killed since the Syrian revolt started in March last year.
Leaders of Russia – a key supporter of the Assad regime – and opposition ally Turkey discussed disagreements over Syria.
After talks in Istanbul, Russian president Vladimir Putin said the deployment of Nato anti-aircraft missiles along the Turkish border could make the conflict worse.
“Creating a new potential on the border will not settle the situation but rather exacerbate it,” he said. “Why would we need more shelling on the border?”
The two countries are firmly enmeshed in Syria’s conflict, on opposite sides. Russia continues to back Assad, thrice protecting his regime from censure by the UN Security Council. Turkey has called for Assad to go and its southern border with Turkey has become a key supply line for rebel forces.
The US has so far declined to intervene in Syria’s civil war, saying doing so could worsen the conflict.
US officials said the White House and its allies are considering military options to secure Syria’s chemical and biological weapons after US intelligence reports showed the Syrian regime may be readying those weapons and could be desperate enough to use them.
President Barack Obama pointedly warned Assad yesterday not to use the weapons.
“Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: the world is watching,” Mr Obama said in a speech at the National Defence University.
“The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in Prague for meetings with Czech officials, would not outline specifics, “but suffice it to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur”.
Options now being considered range from aerial strikes to limited raids by regional forces to secure the stockpiles, according to one current and one former US official briefed on the matter.
Syria is believed to have several hundred ballistic surface-to-surface missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads and a US defence official said American and allied intelligence officials have detected activity around more than one of Syria’s chemical weapons sites in the last week.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said yesterday that Syria “will not use chemical weapons – if there are any – against its own people under any circumstances”.