UN presses Syria on gas attack inspection

Updated: 2013-08-23 06:50


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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.

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.


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, 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 still on the table - but that there was little prospect of concrete measures without U.S. backing, which still seemed unlikely.

"The American reaction following yesterday's attack was cautious," said one. "And without U.S. firepower there's little we can do."

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

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


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.

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 Wednesday'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 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.

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