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DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syria vowed Tuesday to defend itself as U.S. defense chief said his country’s forces are “ready” to launch attacks against the Syrian regime, accused of deadly chemical weapons attacks.

Asian, Gulf and European stock markets nosedived and world oil prices hit a six-month high over fears of possible military intervention, as the drumbeat of war appeared to grow louder in Western capitals.

Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally, warned any use of force would have “catastrophic consequences.”

During a defiant news conference, Syria Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Damascus would defend itself against any strikes.

“We have two options: either to surrender, or to defend ourselves with the means at our disposal,” he said. “The second choice is the best: we will defend ourselves.”

Muallem said Syria had capabilities that would “surprise” the world, and warned that any military action against it would serve the interests of Israel and Al-Qaeda.

He was speaking as the United States and its allies moved closer to acting, with the Washington Post reporting that President Barack Obama was weighing limited military strikes on targets in Syria.

Such action would probably last no more than two days and involve missiles or long-range bombers, striking military targets not directly related to Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, the newspaper cited senior administration officials as saying.

Speaking in Brunei, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the military was prepared to act if Obama called for it.

“We are prepared. We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfil and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take,” he said.

He added: “We are ready to go, like that.”

Washington has accused Assad’s regime of a cover-up, and has said it will provide more evidence of who was behind the attacks.

“Let me be clear,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday, “the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity.”

“Make no mistake. President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people,” he also said.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which has provided Syria’s regime with diplomatic cover by blocking UN Security Council action, was unimpressed by the mounting evidence of an atrocity.

He told British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday there was no proof Damascus had used chemical weapons, Cameron’s office said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Russia would not get involved in any military conflict, and Moscow has warned that intervention would have “catastrophic consequences” for the region.

Nevertheless, senior military officers from Western and Muslim countries began gathering in Jordan on Monday to discuss the regional impact of the war in Syria.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, was to take part, along with chiefs of staff from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Canada, Jordanian state media said.

And a senior Israeli delegation visited the White House for high-level talks on the crisis and the showdown over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

Amman has said, however, that its territory “will not be used as [a] launchpad for any military action against Damascus”.

Britain, meanwhile, said its armed forces were drawing up contingency plans for action in Syria and Foreign Secretary William Hague said the West could act even without full Security Council backing.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said the suspected chemical attack was a “crime against humanity” that “cannot go unpunished.”

Davutoglu had said in remarks published Monday that Turkey, a NATO member that borders Syria, would join an international coalition against it even if the Security Council failed to reach a consensus.

Meanwhile, UN chemical weapons experts postponed efforts to collect more evidence from the site of alleged attacks on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21 in which more than 300 people were reportedly killed.

They had been due to visit the sites again on Tuesday, but Muallem said their trip had been put off because rebels failed to guarantee their security.

The UN convoy had come under sniper fire on Monday as it tried to approach the suburb where the attack apparently took place, but managed to visit victims receiving treatment in two nearby hospitals.

The increasing signs of impending military action sent tensions soaring, forcing share prices sharply lower in Dubai on Tuesday, as all the Gulf Arab stock markets all took a major hit.

Shares in Dubai fell 7.0 percent, while in London the FTSE 100 dropped 0.64 percent and Frankfurt’s DAX 30 sank 1.49 percent.

The price of oil rose, with Brent crude at one stage reaching $111.92 — the highest point since early March — before closing at $111.81, a gain of $1.08 on Monday.

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