By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad's forces have removed several Scud missiles and dozens of launchers from a base north of Damascus, possibly to protect the weapons from a Western attack, opposition sources said on Thursday.
The move from the position in the foothills of the Qalamoun mountains, one of Syria's most heavily militarized districts, appears part of a precautionary but limited redeployment of armaments in areas of central Syria still held by Assad's forces, diplomats based in the Middle East told Reuters.
They said rebel raids and fighting near key roads had blocked a wider evacuation of the hundreds of security and army bases that dot the country of 22 million, where Assad's late father imposed his autocratic dynasty four decades ago.
With U.S. air strikes looming in response to poison gas attacks last week on rebel-held Damascus suburbs, some of the formations on the move are accused by Assad's opponents of firing the chemical weapons. The Syrian government blames rebels for releasing gas but Western powers hold Assad responsible.
At the headquarters of the army's 155th Brigade, a missile unit whose base sprawls along the western edge of Syria's main highway running north from the capital to Homs, rebel scouts saw dozens mobile Scud launchers pulling out early on Thursday.
Rebel military sources said spotters saw missiles draped in tarpaulins on the launchers, as well as trailer trucks carrying other rockets and equipment. More than two dozen Scuds - 11-metre (35-foot) long ballistic missiles with ranges of 300 km (200 miles) and more - were fired from the base in the Qalamoun area this year, some of which hit even Aleppo in the far north.
The base was among a list of suggested targets presented by the rebel Syrian National Coalition to Western envoys in Istanbul earlier this week, opposition sources said. Scud units, of Soviet or North Korean manufacture, are designed to be mobile and so could still be set up quickly to fire from new positions.
Syrian military authorities do not discuss troop movements publicly. No government spokesman was available for comment.
MISSILES, TROOPS GONE
Assad's forces appeared already by Wednesday to have evacuated most personnel from army and security command headquarters in central Damascus, residents and opposition sources in the capital said.
In the Qalamoun area, an activist calling himself Amer al-Qalamouni told Reuters by telephone: "Most of the personnel in the base appear to have left.
He added that trailer trucks loaded with military equipment were also seen on the Damascus ring road to the south: "Either the hardware is being transported to be stored elsewhere or it will remain constantly on the move to avoid being hit," he said.
Captain Firas Bitar of the Tahriri al-Sham rebel force, who is from the Qalamoun area but is based in a Damascus suburb, said two other missile units based near the 155th in the districts of Qutaifa and Nasiriya were also moving rockets out.
He said they could be move northwest to loyalist strongholds near Homs or further into the coastal mountain heartland of Assad's minority Alawite sect.
Opposition sources also suspected the evacuation of another missile unit based in Sahya, just south of Damascus.
"The Sahya barracks have been hitting the southern suburbs with rockets and artillery non-stop," said rebel commander Abu Ayham of the Ansar al-Islam brigade. "Since yesterday, nothing has been fired from the camp, suggesting it has been emptied."
(Editing by William Maclean and Alastair Macdonald)