Syria to allow UN inspect suspect chemical attack site

Britain says much evidence may have been destroyed ahead of visit

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem (R) meets UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane in Damascus, in this handout photo distributed by Syria’s national news agency SANA. Photograph: SANA/Handout via Reuters

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem (R) meets UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane in Damascus, in this handout photo distributed by Syria’s national news agency SANA. Photograph: SANA/Handout via Reuters

Mon, Aug 26, 2013, 08:03

UN chemical weapons experts will today visit the site of an alleged poison gas attack in Syria to begin conducting investigations, the United Nations has said.

However, after the announcement, Britain said that evidence of a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus could have already been destroyed ahead of the visit.

Syria today said it agreed to allow UN inspectors access to the site in the suburbs of Damascus where alleged attacks occurred, the Syria foreign ministry said in a statement broadcast on state television.

“The Syrian government and the United Nations agreed on a common understanding ... to allow the United Nations to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in the Damascus suburbs on August 22nd, 2013,” the statement said, giving the wrong date for the mass poisoning, which took place on August 21st.

British foreign secretary William Hague told reporters “We have to be realistic now about what the UN team can achieve.”

“The fact is that much of the evidence could have been destroyed by that artillery bombardment. Other evidence could have degraded over the last few days and other evidence could have been tampered with,” he said, referring to opposition activists’ reports that the army has shelled the area in the last few days.

Mr Hague said that all evidence pointed towards the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, and that such attacks demanded a strong international response.

“We cannot in the 21st century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity,” Mr Hague said. “We believe it’s very important that there is a strong response and that dictators ... know that the use of chemical weapons is to cross a line and that the world will respond when that line is crossed.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office said in a statement today that Syria had promised to observe a ceasefire at the site in the suburbs of Damascus while a UN team begins “on-site fact-finding activities”.

Meanwhile Russia said today that assigning blame too soon over the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria would be a “tragic mistake”, before a UN investigation tomorrow.

Without directly naming the United States but in comments that warned against any military action against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government, Moscow urged against “hurried conclusions” over the reports of a poison gas attack. “We strongly urge those who, in trying to impose their opinion on UN experts ahead of the results of an investigation, announce the possibility of military action against Syria, to exercise discretion and not make tragic mistakes,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Russia, which has suggested that Syrian rebels may have carried out the attack, said it welcomed Syria’s decision to allow UN experts to visit the site .

Many hundreds of people were poisoned to death on Wednesday before dawn in what appears to have been the world’s worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein’s forces gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurdish villagers in 1988.

Syria has denied that it was to blame for last week’s incident. Rebels and many Western officials believe the poisoning was caused by a chemical agent used in a rocket attack carried out by government forces.

The incident took place just three days after a UN chemical weapons team arrived in Syria to investigate other smaller allegations of poison gas use.

Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem met UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane - who was in Damascus to negotiate access - this morning, it said.

Mr Moualem “stressed Syria’s readiness to cooperate with a team of investigators to uncover false allegations by terrorist groups that Syrian troops used chemical weapons in (Damascus).”

US President Barack Obama met his military and national security advisers on Saturday to debate options, and US naval forces have been repositioned in the Mediterranean to give Washington the option of an armed strike.

Earlier a senior US administration official said there was “very little doubt” that a chemical weapon was used.

The official said that the US intelligence community based its assessment given to the White House on “the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, and witness accounts.”

Syrian authorities warned the United States earlier today against any military action over a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria’s civil war, saying this would “create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East”.