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GENEVA (Reuters) - International inspectors could be rapidly deployed to Syria's borders if any of its neighbours raise an alarm about Damascus using chemical weapons, the deputy head of the OPCW chemical weapons agency said on Monday.
While offering no evidence that President Bashar al-Assad's forces may, as Western powers assert, be preparing a last-ditch use of banned weapons against rebel fighters, the deputy director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said staff were gearing up to help if asked.
"We have intensified our capacity," Grace Asirwatham told Reuters in an interview in Geneva. "We are in preparedness."
Since Syria shunned the treaty that set up the 15-year-old OPCW, the agency has no authority there. But it could play a role in sending experts and specialist protection equipment to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon or Iraq if neighbours feared Syrian poisons might pose a threat on their borders. None has sent any request yet and Syria has denied having any chemical weapons.
Working with the United Nations, whose secretary-general Ban Ki-moon last week warned Assad it would be an "outrageous crime" to use such arms, the Hague-based OPCW stepped up its work after U.S. and other Western officials said they had secret evidence of Syrian preparations for chemical warfare, Asirwatham said.
"We are following the situation and are also concerned about the situation," she added. "However, we cannot go into the country because we don't have a mandate to do so."
Of Western accusations against Assad, which have drawn comparison with those against Iraq's Saddam Hussein a decade ago, she said: "Without verifying such information and conducting a physical inspection on the ground, it is very difficult for us to say anything on those reports."
Syria accuses its enemies of seeking merely a pretext to attack and says that it would not use chemical weapons against its own people even if it had them. Many foreign experts believe Damascus has materials that could be used to deploy nerve agents like sarin gas, which might drift across Syria's borders.
However, Asirwatham said, Syria was bound by the Geneva Protocol of 1925 not to use chemical weapons, even though it has not signed a 1993 treaty banning their production: "They cannot use chemical weapons. It is not an option for them," she said.
"We believe the Syrian government will respect their obligations towards the Geneva Protocol and the international community's sentiment to get rid of chemical weapons."
Should any of the four OPCW member states neighbouring Syria need help, however, teams of 30 to 40 from among its permanent staff of some 150 inspectors would be ready to help on their frontiers: "In case of the use of chemical weapons, or even if they feel that the threat of use is serious, we will be able to provide them with protection and assistance," Asirwatham said.
She stressed, however, that any request must be backed with valid evidence of a threat of chemical weapons being used.
Syria's fifth neighbour, Israel, has signed but not ratified the treaty. Officials there say Israel does not see an immediate threat from Syria's chemical weapons.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald