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US says Syria may be making new types of chemical weapons

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration on Thursday accused Syrian President Bashar Assad's government of producing and using new chemical weapons despite committing to abolish its program in 2013, and insisted the world must find a way to stop it.

Raising the alarm about the chemical threat amid Syria's long civil war, U.S. officials said Syrian government and the Islamic State group continue to use such weapons, although the militants' arms are said to be more rudimentary.

The officials said it was "highly likely" that Assad kept a hidden stockpile of weapons after 2013, but that recent alleged attacks also suggested an "evolving" program to make "new kinds of weapons" — either to improve their military capability or to escape international accountability.

President Donald Trump hasn't ruled out the possibility of additional military action to deter attacks or punish Assad, according to the officials, who weren't authorized to speak on the record and briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

Years of efforts by two U.S. presidents have failed to end the harrowing reports on chemical weapons use in Syria.

Under President Barack Obama, the United States stopped short of striking Assad's forces in response, but brokered a deal with Russia to rid Syria of its stockpiles. After another alleged attack in April 2017, President Donald Trump ordered a retaliatory missile strike, but 10 months later, the U.S. and international observers say the weapons are still used.

More recent attacks have involved both chlorine, which has nonchemical uses and is easier to acquire, and the more sophisticated chemical sarin, the officials said. They said that in recent years, Assad has adjusted his tactics to reduce the chances that attacks will be attributed to his forces.

That has made evidence-collection more difficult, though the U.S. believes it has a firm understanding of the extent of chemical use in Syria through a combination of intelligence, sample testing by third countries, and social media and other open-source information, the officials said.

Though IS no longer controls large parts of Syria or Iraq, the officials said the extremist group continues to use sulfur mustard, via artillery shells, and chlorine, delivered by improvised explosive devices. The officials noted that the underlying chemicals are easy to acquire or produce, and said the U.S. does not believe IS has gotten ahold of military stockpiles in either Iraq or Syria.

Reports of chemical attacks have continued to stream in from Syria, including as recently as Thursday, when rescue workers in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma reported what they described as a suspected chlorine gas attack that injured a number of civilians. The opposition-run Ghouta Media Center reported in a posting on its Facebook page that three people were killed and dozens suffered shortness of breath as a result of surface to surface missiles, some of them carrying chlorine gas.

The reports could not be independently verified and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria via activists on the ground, was unable to confirm the reports either. The accounts followed a suspected attack in late January near Damascus that activists and rescue teams said affected nearly 20 civilians.

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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