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BRUSSELS/BEIRUT (Reuters) - NATO told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday that any use of chemical weapons in his fight against encroaching rebel forces would be met by an immediate international response.
The warning from NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen came as U.S. government sources said Washington had information that Syria was making what could be seen as preparations to use its chemical arsenal.
Syrian forces meanwhile bombarded rebel districts near Damascus in a sustained counter-attack to stem rebel gains around Assad's power base as the insurgency may be entering a decisive phase.
International concern over Syria's intentions has been heightened by reports that its chemical weapons have been moved and could be prepared for use.
"The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable for the whole international community and if anybody resorts to these terrible weapons I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community," Rasmussen told reporters at the start of a meeting of alliance foreign ministers in Brussels.
The chemical threat made it urgent for the alliance to send Patriot anti-missile missiles to Turkey, Rasmussen said.
The French Foreign Ministry referred to "possible movements on military bases storing chemical weapons in Syria" and said the international community would react if they were used.
Britain has told the Syrian government that any use of chemical weapons would have "serious consequences", Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday told Assad not to use chemical weapons, without saying how the United States might respond. The Foreign Ministry in Damascus said it would never use such weapons against Syrians.
The U.S. has collected what has been described as highly classified intelligence information demonstrating that Syria is making what could be construed as preparations to use elements of its extensive chemical weapons arsenal, two U.S. government sources briefed on the issue said.
One of the sources said that there was no question that the US "Intelligence community" had received information pointing to "preparations" under way in Syria related to chemical weapons. The source declined to specify what kind of preparations had been reported, or how close the intelligence indicated the Syrians were to deploying or even using the weapons.
Western military experts say Syria has four suspected chemical weapons sites, and it can produce chemical weapons agents including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent. The CIA has estimated that Syria possesses several hundred litres of chemical weapons and produces hundreds of tonnes of agents annually.
The fighting around Damascus has led foreign airlines to suspend flights and prompted the United Nations and European Union to reduce their presence in the capital, adding to a sense that the fight is closing in.
The army fightback came a day after the Syrian foreign ministry spokesman was reported to have defected in a potentially embarrassing blow to the government.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 200 people were killed across Syria on Monday, more than 60 of them around Damascus. Assad's forces bombarded districts to the south-east of the capital on Tuesday, near to the international airport, and in the rebel bastion of Daraya to the south-west.
Opposition footage posted on the Internet showed a multiple rocket launcher fire 20 rockets, which activists said was filmed at the Mezze military airport in Damascus.
Reuters could not independently verify the footage due to the government's severe reporting restrictions.
In central Damascus, shielded for many months from the full force of a civil war in which 40,000 people have been killed, one resident reported hearing several loud explosions.
"I have heard four or five thunderous blows. It could be barrel bombs," she said, referring to makeshift bombs which activists say Assad's forces have dropped from helicopters on rebel-dominated areas.
The state news agency said that 28 students and a teacher were killed near the capital when rebels fired a mortar bomb on a school. Rebels have targeted government-held residential districts of the capital.
The mainly Sunni Muslim rebel forces have made advances in recent weeks, seizing military bases, including some close to Damascus, from forces loyal to Assad, who is from Syria's Alawite minority linked to Shi'ite Islam.
Faced with creeping rebel gains across the north and east of the country, and the growing challenge around the capital, Assad has increasingly resorted to air strikes against the insurgents.
A diplomat in the Middle East said Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi had left the country and defected, while the British-based Observatory said it had information that he flew from Beirut on Monday afternoon heading for London.
In Beirut, a diplomat said Lebanese officials had confirmed that Makdissi spent several days in Beirut before leaving on Monday, but could not confirm his destination.
"We're aware of reports that he has defected and may be coming to the UK. We're seeking clarification," a Foreign Office spokeswoman in London said.
Makdissi was the public face to the outside world of Assad's government as it battled the 20-month-old uprising. But he had barely appeared in public for several weeks before Monday's report of his defection.
He had little influence in a system largely run by the security apparatus and the military. But Assad's opponents will see the loss of such a high profile figure, if confirmed, as further evidence of a system crumbling from within.
The United Nations and European Union both said they were reducing their presence in Syria in response to the escalated violence around the capital.
A spokesman for U.N. humanitarian operations said the move would not stop aid deliveries to areas which remained accessible to relief convoys.
"U.N.-funded aid supplies delivered through SARC (Syrian Arab Red Crescent) and other charities are still moving daily where the roads are open," Jens Laerke told Reuters in Geneva.
"We have not suspended our operation, we are reducing the non-essential international staff."
Three remaining international staff at the European Union delegation, who stayed on in Damascus after the departure of most Western envoys, crossed the border into Lebanon on Tuesday after pulling out of the Syrian capital.
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Cairo, Erika Solomon, Oliver Holmes and Ayat Basma in Beirut, Mark Hosenball, Mohammed Abbas and David Cutler in London, and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Giles Elgood