Syria lets UN inspect gas attack site

Updated: 2013-08-26 06:46


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Syria lets UN inspect gas attack site

A Free Syrian Army fighter prepares a locally made bomb in a wall, to make a hole for snipers, in old Aleppo, August 25, 2013.[Photo/Agencies]

BEIRUT  - Syria agreed on Sunday to let the United Nations inspect the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, but a US official said such an offer was "too late to be credible" and Washington was all but certain that the government of President Bashar al-Assad had gassed its own people.

The US remarks appeared to signal a military response was more likely. A senior senator said he believed President Barack Obama would ask for authorization to use force when Congress returns from recess next month.

The comments follow forceful remarks from other Western powers, including Britain and France, which also said they believe Assad's government was behind a massive poison gas attack that killed many hundreds of people last week.

Foreign powers have been searching for a response since the killings in a Damascus suburb which, if confirmed, would be the world's worst chemical weapons attack in 25 years.

The United Nations said Damascus had agreed to a ceasefire while a UN team of experts inspects the site from Monday. Syria confirmed it had agreed to allow the inspections.

The scale of Wednesday's attack has led to calls for a strong response from the United States, a year after Obama declared the use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" that would draw serious consequences.

Washington was still weighing how to respond but there was very little doubt that the Syrian government had used a chemical weapon against civilians, a senior US official said.

"Based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts and other facts gathered by open sources, the US intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident," the US official said.

"At this juncture, any belated decision by the regime to grant access to the UN team would be considered too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime's persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days."

Syria's information minister said any US military action would "create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East".

He said Damascus had evidence that chemical weapons were used by rebels fighting to topple Assad, not by his government. That argument is given credence by Assad's ally Russia, but dismissed by Western countries that believe the rebels have no access to poison gas or the big weapons needed to deliver it.

Western leaders have been phoning each other in recent days to discuss a possible coordinated international response.

The White House said Obama and French President Francois Hollande "discussed possible responses by the international community and agreed to continue to consult closely."

British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed there was little doubt the attack was carried out by the Syrian government and that "such an attack demanded a firm response from the international community," Cameron's office said.

"We cannot in the 21st century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague. "We believe it's very important that there is a strong response and that dictators ... know that the use of chemical weapons is to cross a line and that the world will respond when that line is crossed."

Hollande's office said: "France is determined that this act does not go unpunished."

Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said he had spoken to the Obama administration about its plans and believed the president would seek authorization for intervention in Syria after Congress convenes on September 9.

"I think we will respond in a surgical way and I hope the president, as soon as we get back to Washington, will ask for authorization from Congress to do something in a very surgical and proportional way," he told Fox News Sunday.

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