Panetta says Syria ‘spinning out of control’; cautions Assad over chemical weapons

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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made an urgent call Wednesday for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down amid an escalation of violence “rapidly spinning out of control.”

“It’s obvious that what is happening in Syria represents a real escalation in the fighting,” Panetta told reporters at a joint news conference with his British counterpart Philip Hammond, who agreed with the Pentagon chief’s assessment, according to AFP.

“All of the concerns that we’ve expressed for the need for Assad to step down, the need for a peaceful transition, the need to achieve a peaceful solution to that situation... by ignoring those appeals by the international community... the violence there has only gotten worse and the loss of lives has only increased.”

Hammond said the escalating violence indicates that the rebels feel emboldened and that the government of President Bashar Assad is suffering “probably some fragmentation around the edges” as it struggles to keep a grip on power, according to The Associated Press.

Hammond said he agreed with Panetta’s assessment.

“I think what we’re seeing is an opposition which is emboldened, clearly an opposition with access increasingly to weaponry, (and) probably some fragmentation around the edges of the regime as well,’ Hammond said.

Panetta and Hammond both cautioned the Assad regime not to lose control of its chemical weapons.

“We will not tolerate the use or the proliferation of those chemical weapons,” Hammond said.

The defense chiefs were speaking just hours after a suicide attack in Damascus killed top security officials, the first time in 16 months of an anti-regime uprising that a bombing targeted members of Assad’s inner core.

Warning that the situation in Syria was “rapidly spinning out of control,” Panetta said the international community must “bring maximum pressure on Assad to do what’s right, to step down and to allow for that peaceful transition.”

Hammond said he “absolutely” agreed with Panetta that the situation was “spinning out of control as the violence gets closer and closer to the heart of the regime.”

Syrian officials said the bomber struck as ministers and security officials were meeting at the heavily guarded National Security headquarters in Damascus.

Defense minister General Daoud Rajha and Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat were killed and interior minister Mohammed al-Shaar and General Hisham Ikhtiyar, head of National Security, were wounded, state television and security officials said.

Syria’s rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) claimed responsibility for the deadly attack.

The brazen assault on regime insiders came as battles raged across Damascus and after the FSA -- comprising defected soldiers and civilians who have taken up arms against Assad’s forces -- warned the government to “expect surprises.”

More than 17,000 people have been killed in the uprising, according to regime opponents.