Syria ‘very likely’ to have used chemical weapons, says UK

Turkey announce it is stepping up testing of people fleeing the Syrian civil war for traces

US secretary of state John Kerry expressed gratitude to Russia for its willingness to try to arrange a “Geneva Two” conference to negotiate an end to the conflict. Photograph: Reuters

US secretary of state John Kerry expressed gratitude to Russia for its willingness to try to arrange a “Geneva Two” conference to negotiate an end to the conflict. Photograph: Reuters

Fri, May 10, 2013, 01:00

Britain said yesterday it was “very likely” the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, and Turkey announced it was stepping up testing of people fleeing the Syrian civil war for traces.

US secretary of state John Kerry expressed gratitude to Russia for its willingness to try to arrange a “Geneva Two” conference to negotiate an end to the conflict, in a sign of a thawing of the long diplomatic chill between Washington and Moscow, Syria’s strongest ally.

Damascus and the head of the Arab League welcomed the apparent rapprochement between the US and Russia this week. Syrian opposition leaders, however, are sceptical of an initiative they fear might let President Bashar al-Assad hang on to power.

Mr Kerry, who was in Rome, said a transition government would have to have the “mutual consent of both sides, which clearly means that in our judgment President Assad will not be a component of that transitional government”.

Syria’s foreign ministry said Damascus was convinced by “the firm Russian stance which is based on the UN principles of non-interference in internal affairs or the threat to use force against the safety of any state”.

Israel has asked Russia not to sell Syria an advanced air defence system which would help Mr Assad fend off foreign military intervention as he battles a rebellion. The S-300 missile is designed to shoot down aircraft and missiles at 200km ranges. It would enhance Syria’s Russian-supplied defences, which failed to deter Israel from launching air strikes around Damascus last weekend.

Mr Kerry said Washington would prefer Russia not to sell weapons to Syria. Israel said its air raids on Syria were intended to stop Damascus sending powerful Iranian missiles to Hizbullah fighters in Lebanon.

Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah said yesterday Syria would respond to the raids by providing his group with sophisticated weapons, and Hizbullah would back any Syrian effort to recapture the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Asked about reports that rebel forces had used banned nerve agent sarin, a spokesman for British prime minister David Cameron said: “Our assessment is that chemical weapons use in Syria is very likely to have been initiated by the regime.”

– (Reuters)