Int'l community calls on UN to investigate Syrian chemical weapon attack

Published August 21st, 2013 - 02:19 GMT
Bodies are laid out on the ground at a makeshift morgue as Syrian rebels claim they were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, 2013(AFP PHOTO / HO / SHAAM NEWS NETWORK)
Bodies are laid out on the ground at a makeshift morgue as Syrian rebels claim they were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, 2013(AFP PHOTO / HO / SHAAM NEWS NETWORK)

The head of the United Nations chemical weapons inspectors in Syria said on Wednesday reports of a nerve gas attack killing hundreds of people near Damascus should be investigated.

Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom told news agency TT that while he had only seen TV footage, the high number of casualties reported sounded suspicious.

"It sounds like something that should be looked into," he told TT by phone from Damascus. "It will depend on whether any UN member state goes to the secretary general and says we should look at this event. We are in place."

In Cairo, the Arab League called on UN chemical weapons inspectors now inside Syria to immediately visit the site of the alleged attack outside Damascus.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi urged the inspectors in a statement to "go immediately to Eastern Ghouta to see the reality of the situation and investigate the circumstances of this crime."

Britain also urged the Syrian government to allow the UN chemical weapons team, which is currently in Damascus, to be allowed access to the site, which is in the Ghouta region just outside of the capital.

"I am deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of people, including children, have been killed in airstrikes and a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas near Damascus," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement.

Hague said reports of the attack, which has been denied outright by the Syrian government, remained uncorroborated and that Britain was urgently seeking more information.

"But it is clear that if they are verified, it would mark a shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria," he said, adding that Britain would try to hold to account anyone who used chemical weapons or ordered their use.

"I call on the Syrian Government to allow immediate access to the area for the U.N. team currently investigating previous allegations of chemical weapons use. The UK will be raising this incident at the U.N. Security Council," said Hague.

Britain provides non-lethal assistance to rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, but has stopped short of sending them arms and has seen its diplomatic efforts to put pressure on Assad frustrated by Russia and China at the United Nations.

Saudi Arabia urged the UN Security Council and EU ministers to immediately address Syria's "massacre."

"It is time for the UN Security Council to assume responsibility... by convening immediately to reach a clear deterrent decision that ends the humanitarian tragedy," said Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

"We ask EU foreign ministers meeting today in Brussels (to discuss the Egyptian crisis) to have this humanitarian catastrophe as the main topic of their talks," he told AFP.

French President Francois Hollande also called on the UN inspectors to visit the site of the attack, government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said Wednesday.

During a cabinet session, Hollande "announced his intention to ask the UN to visit the site of the attack," she told reporters, adding: "This information obviously requires verification and confirmation."

Turkey too called on U.N. inspectors to look into the reports, and said it was monitoring the situation "with great concern".

"Light must immediately be shed on these claims and the United Nations mission that was formed to investigate chemical weapons claims in Syria should look into these claims and reveal its findings," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"If these allegations are found to be true, it will be inevitable for the international community to take the necessary stance and give the necessary response to this savagery and crime against humanity," it said.

Ankara, once an Assad ally but now one of his fiercest critics, has long been concerned about the possible use of Syrian chemical weapons against its own people.

Turkey began stepping up tests on casualties arriving from Syria for treatment earlier this year to determine whether they were victims of a chemical weapons attack, but no details have been released publicly on the results of those tests.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition called for an urgent Security Council meeting.

"I call on the Security Council to convene urgently," National Coalition leader Ahmed al-Jarba told Al-Arabiya news channel, condemning the Syrian army's bombardment of the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus as a "massacre."

He added that the team should urgently visit the site.

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