The Clinton administration says Syria has an active chemical weapons program and has armed missiles, warplanes and artillery shells with the nerve gas sarin.

The Mideast country had help developing the arsenal from Indian companies and possibly from a retired Russian general, a knowledgeable official told The Associated Press on Wednesday.But "we do not believe the Russian government was involved," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Sarin is a deadly nerve gas that was used in a terrorist attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring 3,000. It is the principal chemical weapon in Iraq's arsenal.

Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention - an international treaty that bans the production, sale and use of chemical weapons - thus allowing the Damascus regime to keep inspectors away from its operations.

The official described Syria's sarin gas as a "fairly advanced" chemical weapon, adding that the country had developed the gas in the 1970s - and then "weapon-ized" it more recently.

"They got help from the outside," he said.

U.S. officials hope that with 149 countries approving the Chemical Weapons Convention, it will become harder for Syria to advance its program. But chemical weapons proliferation remains a major international problem.

Administration officials disclosed earlier this week that U.N. inspectors had detected traces of the even more deadly nerve gas, VX, on Iraqi warheads.

And the officer in charge of Russia's chemical weapons project said this week that Russia could not afford to meet its commitment to destroy all its chemical weapons within the next 10 years. Russia has an estimated 44,000 tons of deteriorating chemical weapons that it promised to destroy when it ratified the international Chemical Weapons Convention last year.

The United States itself is technically violating the treaty by not enacting legislation to implement it.

The Senate ratified the accord last year. But on Tuesday, President Clinton vetoed legislation to implement the treaty because it was attached to a bill he opposed - a measure that would have placed sanctions on companies that provide ballistic missile equipment to Iran.