Syrian Army Moves Scud Missiles to Avoid Strike

AMMAN (Reuters) -

President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have removed several Scud missiles and dozens of launchers from a base north of Damascus, possibly to protect the weapons from a Western attack, opposition sources said on Thursday.

The move from the position in the foothills of the Qalamoun mountains, one of Syria’s most heavily militarized districts, appears part of a precautionary but limited redeployment of armaments in areas of central Syria still held by Assad’s forces, diplomats based in the Middle East told Reuters.

They said rebel raids and fighting near key roads blocked a wider evacuation of the hundreds of security and army bases that dot the country of 22 million, where Assad’s late father imposed his autocratic dynasty four decades ago.

With U.S. air strikes looming in response to alleged poison gas attacks last week, some of the formations on the move are accused by Assad’s opponents of firing the chemical weapons.

At the headquarters of the army’s 155th Brigade, a missile unit whose base sprawls along the western edge of Syria’s main highway running north from the capital to Homs, rebel scouts saw dozens of mobile Scud launchers pulling out early on Thursday.

Rebel military sources said spotters saw missiles draped in tarpaulins on the launchers, as well as trailer trucks carrying other rockets and equipment. More than two dozen Scuds — 35-foot long ballistic missiles with ranges of 200 miles and more — were fired from the base in the Qalamoun area this year, some of which hit even Aleppo in the far north.

Syrian military authorities do not discuss troop movements publicly. No government spokesman was available for comment.

Assad’s forces appeared already by Wednesday to have evacuated most personnel from army and security command headquarters in central Damascus, residents and opposition sources in the capital said.