WASHINGTON / MOSCOW / DAMASCUS: President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Thursday to defend Syria from attack as Washington and London laid out their case for punitive military strikes against Damascus over suspected poisonous gas attacks.
Diplomats said the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council were to hold a new meeting on the crisis at 1830 GMT on Thursday to discuss a fiercely disputed British draft resolution that could allow military action.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has appealed for Western powers to await the findings of by his inspectors probing the sites of the attacks that horrified the world.
Meanwhile, the US Navy has deployed a fifth destroyer to the eastern Mediterranean, a defence official told AFP on Thursday, as expectations grow of an imminent strike on Syria.
The USS Stout, a guided missile destroyer, is "in the Mediterranean, heading and moving east" to relieve the Mahan, said the official, who said both ships might remain in place for the time being.
Other destroyers in the regionthe Ramage, the Barry and the gravelycriss-cross the Mediterranean and could launch their Tomahawk missiles toward Syria if so directed by US President Barack Obama.
The defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not say how long the Mahan would stay in the area before returning to its home port of Norfolk, Virginia, which it left in December 2012.
It is normal for three destroyers to patrol the Mediterranean under the authority of the US Sixth Fleet, primarily in an anti-missile defence role The US Navy keeps as a closely guarded secret the number of Tomahawk missiles that each ship carries but it is estimated to be 45.
The US defence official also indicated that the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its escorts remain in the area of the US Fifth Fleet, which extends from the Red Sea to the Gulf and Arabian Sea.
Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, currently on a week-long trip to Southeast Asia, told the BBC that US forces were in place and "ready to go" if Obama gives the order but no such decision has yet been made.
A second defence official, however, said that while the Nimitz is being held, such a move should not be linked to potential Syria options at this time.
Syria came up in a meeting between Hagel and South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan-Jin, with both men voicing grave concern about the use of chemical weapons, a US defence official told reporters. Hagel told Kim that gross violations of international law cannot go "unanswered", the official said.
In a related development, Russia "over the next few days" will be sending an anti-submarine ship and a missile cruiser to the Mediterranean as the West prepares for possible strikes against Syria, the Interfax news agency said on Thursday.
"The well-known situation shaping up in the eastern Mediterranean called for certain corrections to the make-up of the naval forces," a source in the Russian General Staff told Interfax.
"A large anti-submarine ship of the Northern Fleet will join them (the existing naval forces) over the next few days.
"Later it will be joined by the Moskva, a rocket cruiser of the Black Sea Fleet which is now wrapping up its tasks in the northern Atlantic and will soon begin a Transatlantic voyage towards the Strait of Gibraltar."
In addition, a rocket cruiser of the Pacific Fleet, the Varyag, will join the Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean this autumn by replacing a large anti-submarine ship.
However, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency cited a high-ranking representative of the naval command who said the changes to the country's forces in the region were not linked to the current tensions over Syria and called them "a planned rotation."