Members of the U.N. Security Council called Wednesday for an investigation into new claims of a chlorine gas attack on a rebel bastion in Syria, expressing concern over the reports.
The 15-member body was briefed behind closed doors by Sigrid Kaag, who coordinates a mission in Syria to oversee the removal of its chemical weapons stockpile by June 30.
Members “expressed concern about alleged reports about the use of chlorine gas in some towns, which left people dead and injured, and called for a [probe] of this incident,” said the ambassador of Nigeria, which holds the rotating presidency.
When pressed by reporters, Nigerian Ambassador Joy Ogwu gave no further details on who or how such an inquiry might be conducted.
“We’re still waiting to confirm the authenticity of the reports. Until we have the full facts we cannot take any decision on this matter,” Ogwu said.
She said there was “no decision” on who should investigate. “We heard a briefing and we made comments on the briefing,” she said.
France and the U.S. allege that Assad’s forces may have unleashed industrial chemicals on a rebel-held village in Hama province this month.
There have been conflicting accounts of the alleged chlorine attack on Kafr Zeita, with the government and the opposition trading blame.
Activists have also reported other chlorine gas attacks, most recently in Idlib province Monday, as well as “poison gas” used against rebel-held suburbs of the capita.
Separately, China’s Foreign Ministry said it was investigating reports that a chlorine canister bearing the name of the country’s biggest arms maker was shown in the footage purporting to document the Kfar Zeita gas attack.
The footage showed a partially exploded canister with the chemical symbol for chlorine along with the name of Chinese arms manufacturer Norinco. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the videos and Norinco, also known as China North Industries Group Corporation, has not responded to requests from Reuters for comment.
“After seeing this report, we paid great attention and immediately sought to understand [the situation] from relevant departments,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular press briefing.
“We oppose the production and use of chemical weapons. On this, we are conscientious and responsible. Domestically, we have relevant laws and rules and a supervision system.”
In a statement later emailed to Reuters, the ministry said China “scrupulously abides by its non-proliferation obligations” and strictly controls exports of dual-use items, including sensitive chemicals.
“Chlorine is a raw material that has wide industrial uses, and it is not on any nation’s or organization’s list of controlled items,” it said.
Syria has vowed to hand over or destroy its entire chemical weapons arsenal by the end of this week, but still has roughly 14 percent of the chemicals it declared to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari categorically denied that government forces were using chlorine gas. “The aim of this kind of allegations emanating from Washington or elsewhere is to overshadow the successful preparations for the presidential elections in Syria,” he said.
Damascus has announced plans to hold a presidential election on June 3, despite the 3-year-old war raging across the country.
A Communist lawmaker, Maher Hajjar, registered his candidacy for the poll, which has already been dismissed by the West as a farce.
President Bashar Assad has suggested he would seek another term in office but has not yet announced his candidacy. According to a new election law, the balloting must be contested by more than one candidate. Analysts said they expected at least one candidate to run against Assad to give the election a veneer of legitimacy.
In the first official rebuttal of the criticism, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said the decision to hold presidential polls was a “sovereign one,” and warned that “no foreign power will be allowed to intervene” in the process.
In a statement, it said Syrians would choose their new leader through the ballot box, showcasing “the highest levels of democracy and freedom.”
Syrian state television said the 43-year-old Hajjar was from the city of Aleppo, and that his ancestors were well-learned in Islamic law.
State television said Hajjar was a longtime Communist before leaving the party in 2000 to form the Popular Will Party in Aleppo. State news agency SANA later issued a statement from the party in which it denied Hajjar was a member, after he failed to attend a party conference in June of last year.
According to the new election law, he still needs to collect the signatures of 35 lawmakers for his candidacy to become valid, state TV said.
In Syria, fighting raged in more than half a dozen provinces as 15 airstrikes pounded rebel positions in the Damascus suburb of Mliha, according to activists and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group.
The Observatory said rebel-fired mortar bombs struck the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, killing at least three people, while a separate mortar bomb attack targeted the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma, wounding six.