WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have fired Scud missiles at rebels trying to overthrow Syria's government, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.
U.S. officials said they were unaware of any previous instances in which Scuds were used against the rebels and it represented an escalation in Assad's struggle to retain power in the 20-month-old uprising in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the use of Scuds.
In Brussels, a NATO official also said on Wednesday that a number of short-range ballistic missiles had been launched inside Syria this week.
"Allied intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets have detected the launch of a number of unguided, short-range ballistic missiles inside Syria this week," the official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
"Trajectory and distance travelled indicate they were Scud-type missiles," the NATO official said.
NATO agreed last week to send Patriot anti-missile systems to its ally Turkey to reinforce its air defences and calm its fears of coming under missile attack, possibly with chemical weapons, from neighbouring Syria.
The NATO official said the Syrian missiles had landed inside Syria and no missiles had hit Turkish territory. He said the Western alliance had no information about what casualties or damage the missiles had caused.
Asked if there was any evidence of Syrian use of chemical weapons, he said: "We have no information concerning the payload."
U.S. President Barack Obama warned Assad last week not to use chemical weapons against Syrian opposition forces, saying there would be unspecified consequences if he did so.
The United States, Germany and Netherlands have all agreed to send Patriot missiles to protect Turkey but the missile batteries are not expected to arrive for several more weeks.
Speaking separately, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, while not confirming the use of Scuds, said the United States has seen the use of incendiary barrel bombs in recent days.
"As the regime becomes more and more desperate, we see it resorting to increased lethality and more vicious weapons moving forward," she told a State Department briefing.
News of Syria's use of Scud missiles broke as Western and Arab nations sympathetic to the uprising against Assad gave full political recognition to the opposition.
(Reporting by David Alexander in Washington and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Editing by Michael Roddy)