UN demands access to site of alleged Syria gas attack
France says forceful international action needed if Assad forces found responsible for deaths
The United Nations demanded Syria give its chemical weapons experts immediate access tonight to rebel-held Damascus suburbs where poison gas appears to have killed hundreds just a few miles from the UN team’s hotel.
There was no sign, however, that they would soon be taking samples at the scene of horrors that have drawn comparison with the gassing of thousands of Iraqi Kurds at Halabja in 1988.
President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents gave death tolls from 500 to well over 1,000 and said more bodies were being found in the wake of yesterday’s mysterious pre-dawn killer fumes, which the Syrian government insists were not its doing.
Talk, notably from France and Britain, of a forceful foreign response remains unlikely to be translated into rapid, concerted action given division between the West and Russia at last night’s UN Security Council meeting, and deep caution in Washington.
Moscow has said rebels may have released gas to discredit Dr Assad and urged him to agree to a UN inspection. Yesterday, Russian objections to Western pressure on Syria saw the Security Council merely call in vague terms for “clarity” - a position increasingly frustrated Syrian rebels described as “shameful”.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said today that Syria must let the UN team already in Damascus investigate “without delay”. He said he would send senior UN disarmament official, Angela Kane, to lobby the Syrian government in person.
Mr Ban said he expected a swift, positive answer.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said world powers must respond with force if allegations that Syria’s government was responsible for the deadliest chemical attack on civilians in a quarter-century prove true. But even Mr Fabius stressed there was no question of sending in troops on the ground.
Britain, too, said no option should be ruled out “that might save innocent lives in Syria”. But European forces can do little without US help, and Washington shows little appetite for war.
President Barack Obama began a two-day bus trip to promote his domestic economic policies and made no comment on Syria. His spokesman said the tour showed he had “his priorities straight”.
The United States said tonight it is unable to conclusively say that chemical weapons were used in the alleged gas attack.
President Barack Obama has directed the US intelligence community to urgently gather information to help verify allegations, the state department said.
“At this time we are unable to conclusively determine CW (chemical weapons) use,“ state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
Syrian officials have called allegations against their forces “illogical and fabricated”. They point to the timing of the attack, days after UN inspectors arrived after months of argument, and to previous assurances that, if they possessed chemical weapons, they would never use them against Syrians.