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.

After months of negotiating with Dr Assad’s government to let inspectors into Syria, a UN team arrived in Damascus four days ago. Their task is to check on the presence, but not the sources, of chemical weapons that are alleged to have been released in three specific, small incidents several months ago.

They have no mandate beyond that. Syria’s government, which has accused the rebels of using chemical weapons in the past, offered no public response to calls for wider UN access.

“We’re being exterminated”

Many rebels and activists in the opposition area say they have lost interest in promises of UN investigations or in help from abroad: “We are 7 km away, just a 5-minute car ride from where they are staying,” said activist Bara Abdelrahman.

“We’re being exterminated with poison gas while they drink their coffee and sit inside their hotels.”

Qassem Saadeddine, a commander and spokesman for the rebels’ supreme military council, said the group was still deliberating on how or if it should respond: “People are growing desperate as they watch another round of political statements and UN meetings without any hope of action,” he told Reuters.

“We are still studying how the rebels should respond.”

Syria’s revolt against four decades of Assad family rule has turned into a brutal civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people in two and half years and divided the Middle East along largely sectarian lines. Among world powers the conflict has revived Cold War-era East-West tensions and on the ground the struggle has limped to a poisonous stalemate.

Western powers back the opposition but have been reluctant to fully commit to a revolt increasingly overtaken by Islamists linked to al-Qaeda. Yet they have said the large-scale use of widely banned chemical weapons would be a game changer.

“We are asking for this team to go directly, with complete freedom ... to the site of the crimes which took place yesterday,” George Sabra, a prominent member of the umbrella opposition’s national coalition, told Reuters.

“But we are doubtful,” he conceded. “Because the mission of these experts is constrained by the Syrian regime, limited to a few areas which it will take them to.”

World paying “lip service”

Syria’s southern neighbour Israel, still technically at war with Damascus, said it believed Syrian forces had used chemical weapons and accused the world of turning a blind eye: “The world condemns, the world investigates, the world pays lip service,” strategic affairs minister Yuval Steinitz said.

In Paris, Mr Fabius said that if the security council could not make a decision, one would have to be taken “in other ways”, but he did not elaborate.

Immediate international action is likely to be limited.

European officials speaking on condition of anonymity said that options ranging from air strikes, creating a no-fly zone, or providing heavy weapons to some rebels were all options still on the table - but that there was little prospect of concrete measures without US backing, which still seemed unlikely.

“The American reaction following yesterday’s attack was cautious,” said one. “And without US firepower there’s little we can do.”

While France and Britain took a lead in attacking Muammar Gadafy’s forces to help Libya’s revolt in 2011, the ultimately successful campaign against an enemy far weaker than Dr Assad’s military also relied heavily on US firepower and logistics.

Dr Assad’s forces continued a heavy bombardment of the Ghouta region for a third day today, which activists say will further hinder UN investigators from entering the area.

Foaming at mouth

A spokesman from the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition said bodies were still being found on the outskirts of Damascus.

“We expect the number to grow because we just discovered a neighbourhood in Zamalka where there are houses full of dead people,” said Khaled Saleh, speaking in Istanbul.

Opposition activists said men, women and children were killed as they slept. They say several towns in Ghouta were hit with rockets loaded with poison gas before dawn.

Images, including some by freelance photographers supplied to Reuters, showed scores of bodies laid out on floors with no visible signs of injury. Some had foam at the nose and mouth.

Fahad Almasri, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army in Paris, said local fighters had counted 29 separate projectiles fired from three military positions during yesterday’s pre-dawn attack, though not all appeared to have chemical warheads.

The firing from Qasioun mountain, Almezzah air base and a military compound in the suburb of Damascus hit targets across a swathe of towns and neighbourhoods northeast of the capital.

Syria is one of just a handful of countries that are not parties to the international treaty that bans chemical weapons, and Western nations believe it has caches of undeclared mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agents.

Weapons experts said it was unclear from evidence so far what precise chemicals may have been involved and how they may have been delivered. While opposition groups spoke of rockets carrying gas canisters, analysts abroad said gases, possibly a cocktail of compounds, could have been released in other ways.

While Dr Assad’s armed forces are suspected of having such stocks, analysts also noted that rogue units, not under direct orders from the government might choose to use them - as might some opposition group, should it have captured such weapons. had been used.