BEIRUT Rebels have threatened to storm two predominantly Christian towns in central Syria, saying regime forces are using them to attack nearby areas, an activist group said Saturday. It says such an attack could force thousands of Christians from their homes.
Russia's foreign minister, meanwhile, said that Damascus has consolidated its chemical weapons into one or two locations to protect them from a rebel onslaught.
Concerns over Syria's chemical arsenal have escalated as the regime of President Bashar Assad suffers losses on the battlefield. U.S. intelligence officials have said the regime may be readying chemical weapons and could be desperate enough to use them, while both Israel and the U.S. have also expressed concerns they could fall into militant hands if the regime crumbles.
Moscow's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia, which has military advisers training Syria's military, has kept close watch over Damascus's chemical arsenal. He said the Syrian government has moved them from many arsenals to just "one or two centers" to properly safeguard them.
Lavrov also told reporters on a flight from an EU summit late Friday that countries in the region had asked Russia to convey an offer of safe passage to Assad.
Syria refuses to confirm or deny if it has chemical weapons but Damascus is believed to have nerve agents as well as mustard gas. It also possesses Scud missiles capable of delivering them.
Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that one rebel group has issued an ultimatum to the towns of Mahrada and Sqailbiyeh in the province of Hama.
A video released by rebels showed Rashid Abul-Fidaa, who identified himself as the Hama commander of the Ansar Brigade, calls on residents to "evict" regime forces or be attacked.
"Assad's gangs in the cities are shelling our villages with mortars and rockets destroying our homes, killing our children and displacing our people," said Abdul-Fidaa, who wore an Islamic headband and was surrounded by gunmen. "You should perform your duty by evicting Assad's gangs," he said. "Otherwise our warriors will storm the hideouts of the Assad gangs."
He accused regime forces of taking positions in the two towns in order to "incite sectarian strife" between Christians and the predominantly Sunni opposition. Assad belongs to the Alawite minority sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.
Mahrada was the hometown of Ignatius Hazim, the former Patriarch of the Damascus-based Eastern Orthodox Church who passed away on Dec. 5 at the age of 92.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria's population, say they are particularly vulnerable to the violence sweeping the country of 22 million people. They are fearful that Syria will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Islamic groups.