Russia warns against WMD search as pretext for ousting Assad

Russia on Monday warned the West against using a search for weapons of mass destruction in Syria as an excuse for ousting President Bashar al-Assad along the lines of the notorious hunt for deadly arms in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov questioned why UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was calling for a fact-finding mission in Syria by citing unproven claims of the regime's use of chemical weapons in December.

"This demand by the Secretary General with reference to a forgotten episode reminds us a great deal of attempts in Syria to introduce a practice analogous to that which existed in Iraq, when they were looking for weapons of mass destruction there," Lavrov told reporters.

Russia was strongly opposed to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein and has bitterly resisted foreign intervention in its close Middle East ally Syria.

Lavrov -- speaking during a joint press appearance with African Union Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma -- accused some governments and other players of using the threat of chemical warfare as a pretext for insisting on a foreign invasion of Syria.

"There are governments and outside players that believe that all means are appropriate to overthrow the Syrian regime," said Lavrov, apparently referring to Western and anti-Assad Arab governments.

"But the subject of using weapons of mass destruction is too serious -- it should not be joked around with."

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was sparked by a search for weapons of mass destruction purportedly held by Saddam Hussein's regime that were never found.