DAMASCUS, Syria, Dec. 18 (UPI) -- The Syrian ambassador to the United Nations says the civil war-wracked country's leaders fear chemical weapons may be used by rebel forces.
"We are genuinely worried that certain states that support terrorism and terrorists could provide the armed terrorist groups with chemical weapons, and then claim they had been used by the Syrian government," Bashar Ja'afari said Monday in letters to the U.N. secretary-general and president.
Ja'afari cited a report in the Turkish newspaper Yurt that al-Qaida is producing chemical weapons in a laboratory near the Turkish city of Gziantep and has threatened to use them against Syrian civilians, the Kuwait news agency KUNA reported.
Ja'afari reiterated previous vows from the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad that the government forces "will not under any circumstances use any chemical weapons that it may have, because it is defending its people from terrorists backed by well-known states, the forefront of which is the United States of America."
KUNA also reported a U.N. official said Monday peacekeeper troops in the Syrian Golan have been provided kits as a precaution to protect them in event of a chemical weapons attack. The official said the United Nations had no way of knowing whether the threat of such an attack was serious.
Al-Arabiya reported Monday a former head of Syria's chemical warfare program said the country's arsenal of chemical weapons is akin to Israel's nuclear arsenal.
Maj. Gen. Adnan Sillu told the Saudi television channel he took part in top-levels talks about using chemical weapons against rebel fighters and civilians.
"Syria's chemical arsenal has reached similar levels to Israel's nuclear weapons," he said.
Sillu had said last June the main storage sites for mustard gas and nerve agents have been under guard by thousands of troops, but predicted they would be easily overrun.
"Probably anyone from the Free Syrian Army or any Islamic extremist group could take them over," he said.
The Washington Post reported Monday U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned the weapons of mass destruction could be grabbed by Islamist extremists or other freelancers.
U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders have warned Assad against using chemical weapons but have been vague about what their response would be if they were deployed.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday while in Turkey the Pentagon has plans to deal with various scenarios, but gave no details. Defense officials, however, told the Post they are coordinating with Israel, Jordan and NATO allies to monitor dozens of weapons sites and to intervene if necessary.
"It's safe to say it will take an international effort to secure the weapons," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said.
"What is challenging is that we have a situation that we don't have control over. The fighting is much more intense."
In a Tuesday piece, the Post said there are reports Syria developed special vehicles last year for moving and mixing the weapons. There also is an unconfirmed report Lebanese allies of Bashar, presumably in Hezbollah, may have been trained in using chemical weapons, the newspaper said.
The Post acknowledged the Syrian sources in seeing the United States take on a greater role with the opposition. But one defector told of seeing two senior Syrian officers placing chemical weapons materials in a civilian vehicle at a secret military base in Nsiriyah in January and head in the direction of the highway toward Lebanon. Two days later, the source said, two men with Lebanese accents arrived at the Nasiriyah base and were trained in how to combine and activate the chemicals, as well as the proper safety precautions in handling them, the Post said.
Whether any chemical weapons have left Syria is unknown, the Post said.