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DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed Thursday to defend his country from attack as the United States and Britain laid out their case for punitive military strikes against Damascus over a suspected poisonous gas attack.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon appealed for the West to give peace a chance, saying his inspectors would report back to him by Saturday on their probe into the alleged use of internationally banned chemical weapons in the attack that horrified the world.

The military buildup continued in the Mediterranean as Western powers appeared poised to launch military action against Assad’s regime although U.S. President Barack Obama said he has yet to make a decision.

And Prime Minister David Cameron of chief ally Britain, facing an uphill battle to win parliamentary support for any intervention, said what was at stake was “one of the most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons in a century”.

Cameron admitted there was no 100 percent certainty of who was responsible, but the government insisted military action would be allowed under international law as “humanitarian intervention”.

Rights groups say several hundred people including children were killed when poisonous gas was unleashed in areas east of Damascus on August 21.

The attack, though not the first in Syria where chemical weapons’ use has been alleged, threatens to draw the West into a brutal 29-month conflict which has escalated in the face of deep divisions in the international community.

A Western bombing blitz had appeared imminent earlier this week, but U.S. allies now appear more reluctant to act before hearing the results of the U.N. probe.

Ban said the U.N. experts — on a third day of inspections of alleged attack sites near Damascus — would leave Syria by Saturday and report to him immediately.

He appealed to divided powers to work together to head off military action against Syria, where the U.N. says over 100,000 have been killed and almost three million made homeless since the uprising against Assad first erupted in March 2011.

“Diplomacy should be given a chance … peace (should) be given a chance,” Ban said.

With any U.S.-led missile strike unlikely to have U.N. Security Council backing, key Damascus allies Russia and Iran again warned against any Western intervention, saying it could set off a wider regional conflict.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin — whose government is Syria’s top arms supplier — and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had agreed that the Security Council must study the weapons report and work on finding a diplomatic settlement.

Assad remained defiant in the face of the Western threats.

“Syria will defend itself in the face of any aggression,” state television cited him as telling a visiting delegation of Yemeni politicians.

He vowed that any attack would result in “victory” for the Syrian people.

His regime has denied using chemical weapons and blamed “terrorist” rebels.

The United States said it deployed a fifth destroyer to the eastern Mediterranean while Russia was reportedly sending in two warships and Britain dispatched fighter jets to Cyprus.

The mood among Damascus residents was fearful, while security forces prepared for possible air attacks by pulling back soldiers from potential targets and introducing tougher controls at roadblocks and hospitals.

Syria’s nervous neighbors stepped up preparations for conflict, with Israel authorising a partial call-up of army reservists while Turkey put its forces on heightened vigilance.

Obama, who a year ago warned that the use of chemical arms would cross a US “red line,”said Wednesday that Washington had definitively concluded that the Assad regime was to blame for the August 21 attack.

Asked how close he was to ordering a U.S. strike Obama said: “I have not made a decision.”

He said U.S. action would be designed to send a “shot across the bow” to convince Syria it had “better not do it again.”

The Nobel Peace laureate, who wants to seal a legacy of ending foreign wars after the bloody Iraq and Afghan conflicts, not getting into new ones, argued that it was vital to send a clear message not just to Syria, but around the world.

If confirmed, it would be the deadliest use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed Iraqi Kurds in 1988.

But some commentators have warned that the US could effectively see itself fighting on the side of Al-Qaeda, whose militants have joined rebels in the battle to oust Assad.

Washington has bluntly signalled that a Security Council resolution that could have given a legal basis for an assault was going nowhere owing to Russian opposition.

French President Francois Hollande, whose government was the first to speak of the possible use of force over the gas attacks, said the world must act to stop the violence.

However, a government spokeswoman said coordinating an agreed response was “difficult”.

Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba, on a visit to Paris, said the West must get rid of Assad and his “killing machine” and bring him to trial at the International Criminal Court.

The international community has remained largely impotent over the war despite the huge death toll, as Russia, along with China, have blocked three Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad.

However, fears Western intervention could ignite a regional conflagration were stoked further by Iran, whose army chief Hassan Firouzabadi warned that a strike on Syria would “drive the Zionists to the edge of fire” and cause untold losses among the U.S. and British ranks.

Iran and Syria are main backers of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia which fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006.

And Israeli President Shimon Peres vowed that the Jewish state would “respond with all our might” if attacked.

Global financial markets remained on edge, although stocks rebounded on Thursday while oil prices slipped back after hitting two-year highs Wednesday on supply fears.

Photo Credit: AFP/Mohamed Abdullah

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