Syria Hits Back at US Over Chemical Arms

Syria on Monday accused Washington of seeking to topple the Damascus regime by raising fears over its chemical weapons stockpiles, as shelling and air raids killed dozens more civilians, including children.

Government forces and rebels, meanwhile, pressed on with their fierce battle for control of the northern city of Aleppo, which suffered a severe economic blow on Sunday when its ancient marketplace went up in flames sparked by the fighting.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV that the United states was trying to create a scenario similar to that which led to the invasion of Iraq.

"This issue (chemical weapons) is an invention of the American administration," Muallem said in excerpts of an interview to be broadcast in full later Monday.

But Muallem remained vague on whether President Bashar al-Assad's regime possesses chemical weapons, despite Damascus acknowledging in July that it has such stockpiles.

"These chemical weapons in Syria, if they exist -- and I emphasise if -- how is it possible that we would use them against our own people? It's a joke," he said in the interview excerpts of which were broadcast by the staunchly anti-American and anti-Israeli channel.

"But this definitely does not mean that Syria has a stockpile of chemical weapons or that it intends to use these weapons against its own people ... it is a myth they invented to launch a campaign against Syria like they did in Iraq," he said in the interview given on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.

A US-led coalition had invaded Iraq in March 2003, accusing Saddam Hussein of possessing weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were ever found.

On the battlefield, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that an air strike on the town of Salqeen in Syria's mostly rebel-held province of Idlib early on Monday killed 21 people, including eight children.

In a video released by activists from Salqeen, a number of the victims are seen piled in the back of a pick-up truck, their bodies charred black with limbs torn off.

"My God, my son is dead," a man wails as he looks on at the bloody disfigured corpses, finally putting his hand over his eyes.

According to Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman, among the dead are three children from the same family.

In another video, the bodies of three small children, probably the same ones, are shown lying on a bedsheet with their faces bloody and mutilated.

"These children are from one family," a man tells the person filming.

Other footage shows residents and two Kalashnikov-toting men wearing fatigues walking over mounds of rubble in Salqeen. The camera pans to nearby buildings which have had their entire sides blown off, as a crying child can be heard in the background.

The videos cannot be independently verified due to severe restrictions on foreign media imposed by the regime.

Global aid agency Save the Children has warned that many Syrian children who have witnessed killings, torture and other atrocities have been severely traumatised by the violence ravaging the country.

At least 30,000 people, including more than 2,000 children, have died in the conflict since it erupted in March 2011, according to figures supplied by the Observatory.

The Britain-based watchdog also gave an initial toll of 36 people -- 29 civilians, five rebels and two soldiers -- killed nationwide on Monday, including by regime shelling in the provinces of Hama, Daraa and Homs.

The Observatory, which relies on its information from a network of activists and medics on the ground, said that on Sunday alone, 126 people were killed across the country -- 48 civilians, 63 soldiers and 15 rebels.

Among Sunday's dead were eight members of the security forces who were killed when a suicide bomber blew up a car in the Kurdish city of Qamishli, in an attack that threatened to draw the country's Kurdish minority into the conflict which they so far largely avoided.

In Aleppo on Sunday, a huge plume of black smoke billowed over the ancient market quarter as fire devoured the wares and wooden fittings of the historic souk of Syria's commercial capital.

Shopkeepers could only look on as the inferno sparked by clashes between troops and rebels ripped through textile and perfumery sections of the market, ravaging family businesses dating back generations.

Before the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad's regime erupted in March last year, the UNESCO-listed covered market would have been packed with tourists.

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