Syria said to clear out security installations ahead of attack

Moscow evacuates nationals; Iran dismisses ‘ridiculous’ reports of Assad in Tehran; UN inspectors return to site of alleged chemical attack

Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, stands next to Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Dawoud Rajha, right, and Chief of Staff Gen. Fahed al-Jasem el-Freij, left, during a ceremony to mark the 38th anniversary of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in Damascus, Syria, in 2011. (AP Photo/SANA)
Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, stands next to Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Dawoud Rajha, right, and Chief of Staff Gen. Fahed al-Jasem el-Freij, left, during a ceremony to mark the 38th anniversary of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in Damascus, Syria, in 2011. (AP Photo/SANA)

The Syrian regime was reportedly evacuating strategic security centers Wednesday amid mounting signs of an impending Western attack on military targets in the country.

According to activists quoted in a report in the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya media channel, Syria was abandoning command centers and government security offices — sites that it suspects will be targeted in a possible Western strike. New facilities were being set up in secret locations, some of which were reportedly within walking distance of the former centers, and in alternative sites, such as in schools. Trucks were deployed to vacate some of the regime’s main security centers.

Among the units relocated was one commanded by President Bashar Assad’s brother Maher Assad — the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army — Al-Arabiya said. Israel TV reported on Friday that the chemical weapons allegedly used to kill hundreds of Syrian civilians last Wednesday were fired by the 155th Brigade. The nerve gas shells were fired from a military base in a mountain range to the west of Damascus, the Channel 2 news report said

Wednesday’s report came on the heels of an Israeli TV report Monday suggesting that families of senior figures in the Assad regime were fleeing Syria ahead of the anticipated US-led strike.

Maher Assad (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons / m.nadaff)
Maher Assad (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons / m.nadaff)

“The families of some of the heads of the regime” were flying out of Latakia Airport in the west of the country, Channel 2 News said. The US and Europe have been threatening military action due to an alleged chemical weapons attack last week that killed hundreds of people in a suburb of Damascus.

Neighboring Iran on Wednesday dismissed reports that Bashar Assad had hastily flown to Tehran for consultations ahead of the expected US-led strike. A report by Iranian outlet Press TV quoted a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Abbas Araqchi, to the effect that such reports were “ridiculous.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed the Middle East’s woes on outside intervention, saying that states that backed Sunni Islamists would be stung by the conflict, Reuters reported. He made the comments during a meeting with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, who was in Tehran to possibly mediate between the United States and Iran, the report said, citing Iranian media.

“Unfortunately, a Takfiri [a pejorative term for Sunni Islamists] group has been formed with the support of certain regional states that are in conflict with all Muslim groups. Supporters [of these groups] should know that the fire will burn them too,” Khamenei said.

Meanwhile, Russia was also organizing efforts for dozens of its nationals in Syria to return home, providing them with a transport plane via the port city of Latakia. The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said it evacuated 89 people, 75 of them Russians, from Syria on Tuesday, with more expected Wednesday.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a statement Wednesday that armed intervention being considered by the US and its allies would “lead to the long-term destabilization of the situation in the country and the region.”

Tens of thousands of Russian citizens live in Syria, the legacy of years of cooperation and exchange between the two countries.

In Damascus, UN chemical weapons experts who are investigating an alleged poison gas attack near Damascus left their hotel Wednesday, and two anti-regime activists said the team was expected to visit an eastern suburb of the capital affected by the strike.

Associated Press photographers saw seven cars with UN markings leave the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus. Before the departure, the group was briefed by UN disarmament chief Angela Kane and team leader Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish chemical weapons expert.

The team looked at a map, but did not speak to reporters.

Two Syrian anti-regime activists, speaking on Skype, said the team was headed to the eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, one of the areas affected by the purported strike. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of regime retribution.

In Geneva, UN spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci told reporters that the inspection team might need longer than the planned 14 days to complete its work and its priority now is to determine what chemical weapons might have been used.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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