UN team to study sites near Damascus where chemical attacks are suspected

Syria has agreed to inspections and will halt local hostilities for their duration

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem (right) meets UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane in Damascus.

UN inspectors are set to begin investigations today into allegations chemical weapons were deployed east of Damascus last week.

The agreement between Damascus and the UN was concluded during a meeting between foreign minister Walid Muallem and the UN representative for disarmament Angela Kane. He expressed Syria's willingness to co-operate with the inspectors to expose as false allegations that government forces had used chemical weapons.

The foreign ministry declared, "An agreement was concluded . . . to allow the UN team led by Prof Aake Sellström to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Damascus province. [The agreement] is effective immediately" and will be accompanied by a "cessation of hostilities at the locations related to the incident". Dr Sellström and his team arrived in Syria on the 18th, after months waiting in Cyprus, to visit three sites where chemical weapons were said to have been used in December and March.

Moscow's approval
Russia welcomed the Damascus decision to permit inspections and called on all sides "trying to influence the results of the investigation in advance" to avoid making "tragic mistakes". Moscow, which had urged the government to give the inspectors access to the affected area, accused rebels of obstructing the inquiry by refusing a local ceasefire.


The deal followed Saturday's warning by information minister Omran Zoubi that threatened US military intervention in the conflict would "be no picnic" and "create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East".

Syrian ally, Tehran, expressed concern over the possibility of western intervention. Iranian armed forces deputy chief of staff Massoud Jazayeri said "If the United States crosses this red line, there will be harsh consequences for the White House. "

The opposition National Coalition, which blames the government, claimed the attack slew 1,300 civilians while the UK and US have said their initial intelligence assessments point to government responsibility.

However, the Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 322. Doctors Without Borders said 355 died and reported that 3,600 people had been treated in three Damascus hospitals. "Medical staff working in these facilities provided detailed information to [the organisation's] doctors regarding large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress," stated Bart Janssens, director of operations.

While he could not name the side responsible or identify the agent used, he said, that “reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the . . . pattern of events – characterised by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first-aid workers – strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent.”

Accusations denied
The government has denied the accusations and declared that chemical agents were used yesterday against troops taking part in an operation against a rebel-held area in Damascus.

The official news agency Sana quoted the army as saying a warehouse containing raw materials for chemical weapons, gas masks and antidotes had been captured in the eastern Jobar suburb on Saturday.

The military argued that “armed terrorist groups” have used such weapons following reverses they have suffered in recent months. Mr Zoubi said projectiles carrying chemicals were fired from areas controlled by rebels.

Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra threatened to attack President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect in response to the alleged chemical attack.

Meanwhile Hama governor Hana Abdel Razak al-Naem, appointed in 2011, was assassinated. He took over from Khaled Abdel Aziz, dismissed after popular anti-government protests.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times