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WASHINGTON-- Senior U.S. officials warned the Russian and Syrian governments Tuesday against chemical weapons use in Syria as forces allied with its President Bashar Assad prepare for an offensive on a rebel stronghold.

The United States "will respond to any verified chemical weapons use in Idlib or elsewhere in Syria ... in a swift and appropriate manner," State Department spokesman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington.

Nauert said senior U.S. officials engaged with their Russian counterparts to "to make this point very clear to Damascus." She said the use of chemical weapons "will not be tolerated."

She said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week that Moscow -- a military ally of Assad -- would be held responsible.

NATO on Wednesday said the Russian navy is building up its presence in the Mediterranean Sea amid growing tensions over the war in Syria.

"We will not speculate on the intention of the Russian fleet, but it is important that all actors in the region exercise restraint and refrain from worsening an already disastrous humanitarian situation in Syria," NATO's chief spokesman, Oana Lungescu, said Wednesday.

She says several of the Russian ships are equipped with cruise missiles.

Russian defense officials could not be reached for comment. At least eight ships, including a missile cruiser and two missile-carrying submarines, have joined the Russian flotilla over the past three weeks. Russian media reports indicate there are around 15 Russian navy vessels in the Mediterranean overall.

Moscow has repeatedly alleged that Syrian rebels are preparing a chemical weapons attack in Idlib as a provocation to bring a Western attack on Syrian forces.

The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets said the naval buildup was connected to that prospect. "The United States and its allies have forced Russia to send a powerful sailing group to the Mediterranean," it wrote on Tuesday.

Nauert called the Russian reports "false-flag-type reporting."

"We've seen that before where they try to put the blame -- they try to put the onus on other groups and we don't buy into that," she said Wednesday.

President Donald Trump has twice carried out airstrikes in Syria in response to apparent chemical weapons attacks there. Trump said the strikes were intended to deter Assad from launching chemical weapons attacks again.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis referred to those two airstrikes but offered no further information Tuesday on how the U.S. was responding to the situation, other than to cite the State Department's "recent active communication with Russia to enlist them in preventing this."

In April, the United States, France and Britain launched military strikes in Syria to punish Assad for an apparent attack using chlorine against civilians in the Damascus suburb of Douma. And in 2017 Trump authorized a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit a single Syrian airfield in retaliation for Assad's use of sarin gas against civilians.

Assad has repeatedly denied his government has used chemical weapons.

Information for this article was contributed by staff members of The Associated Press.

A Section on 08/30/2018

Print Headline: Russia adds warships near Syria amid U.S. warning

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