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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 April, 2003, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
Syria denounces US 'lies'
Man polishes billboard of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Ties between the US and Syria have long been strained
Syria has refuted US allegations that it is developing chemical weapons, saying such claims are designed to further the interests of Israel.

It follows condemnation of the US by fellow Arab countries, Russia and the European Union for making threats against Syria over the war in Iraq.

A statement released by the Syrian Government condemned US "threats and falsifications", saying that the "escalated language of threats and accusations by some American officials against Syria" was aimed at "damaging its steadfastness".

"The cabinet rejected these accusations and allegations and saw them as a response to Israeli stimulus and a service to its [Israel's] goals and expansive greed," the statement added.

Separately, Syrian state-run radio said "the Israeli aggression on the Arabs, in the context of the US war on Iraq and its consequences has taken a more dangerous and fierce nature".

Ties between the US and Syria have long been strained by US support for Israel and Syria's backing of the Lebanese group Hezbollah and radical Palestinian groups, which Washington considers "terrorist" organisations.

Israel has urged the US to put heavy pressure on Syria to oust the Palestinian militant groups from Damascus and Hezbollah guerrillas from southern Lebanon.

Chemical tests claim

The US said on Monday it may consider impose economic, diplomatic and other unspecified sanctions against Damascus if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad failed to take what it called the right decisions.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
I would say that we have seen chemical weapons tests in Syria over the past 12, 15 months
Donald Rumsfeld
US Defence Secretary
The threats followed strong comments from Washington that Syria had provided Iraqi fighters with equipment, sheltered members of Saddam Hussein's regime and may have aided the concealment of Iraqi chemical weapons.

US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld said that Syria has itself conducted chemical weapons tests in the past year.

There is now global speculation that Syria may be next on the Pentagon's list for military action.

The US has included Syria on its State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism, and has denounced it as a rogue state.

Allies reluctant

However, both Spain and the UK, crucial US allies in the war in Iraq, have refused to back the US' claims.

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, on a visit to Central Command in Qatar, refused to back Washington's line, saying Syria was run by "intelligent people who have the future interest and welfare of their country at heart".

Spain - another key US ally in the Iraq war - said Syria was a friend of Spain and ruled out military action against Damascus.

The US has also faced disapproval over its stance from France, the European Union and Russia.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has expressed concern that recent statements about Syria may further destabilise the Middle East, while the Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Musa, said he was astounded by the threats.

The BBC's Kim Ghattas in Damascus
"Syria resists everything American - no MacDonalds here"

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