The United Nations has announced it is withdrawing nonessential staff out of Syria owing to the worsening security situation. Meanwhile, Syria's Foreign Ministry spokesman has defected and left the country.
Up to 25 of about 100 international staff could leave this week, the UN announced on Monday, adding that more armored vehicles were needed following attacks on humanitarian aid convoys sometimes caught in crossfire between Syrian government and rebel forces.
"The UN has decided to send all nonessential international staff out of Syria and to halt all field trips outside of the capital for now," the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement.
Damascus had been considered safe until last week when the main airport was shut down and flights into Syria canceled after several attacks by rebels, according to the statement.
"The situation is significantly changing," said Sabir Mughal, the UN's chief security advisor in Syria. "There is an increased risk for humanitarians as a result of indiscriminate shooting or clashes between the parties."
Two UN convoys en route to Damascus airport were hit by gunfire last week.
Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi defected from President Bashar Assad's government and left the country, a regional diplomatic source said on Monday. The news was also confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"Makdissi was pressured by people inside the presidential palace, but not the president himself, to resign," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told the AFP news agency. "He is now on his way to London."
Chemical weapons warning
The Foreign Affairs Ministry announced on Monday that it would not use chemical weapons against its own people after the United States warned it would take action against any such escalation.
The statements came amid media reports, citing European and US officials, that Syria's chemical weapons had been moved and could be prepared for use in response to dramatic gains by rebels fighting to topple Assad.
US President Barack Obama warned Assad on Monday not to use chemical weapons against opposition forces, saying there would be consequences if he were to do so.
"The world is watching," Obama said in remarks to a gathering of nuclear proliferation experts on Monday.
"The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable, and, if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable," Obama said.
Syria's uprising has grown increasingly bloody in recent months. Activists say more than 40,000 have been killed.
hc/kms (Reuters, AP, AFP)