March 21 (Bloomberg) -- The United Nations said today it will investigate Syrian government claims that rebels used a chemical weapon, as President Barack Obama warned Syria to keep chemical arms off the battlefield and away from terrorists.
The UN’s probe will focus on allegations by Syrian authorities that opposition forces killed 25 people in Aleppo province by launching a rocket laden with chemicals on March 19. The opposition said President Bashar al-Assad’s troops used a toxic weapon.
The U.K. and France requested the investigation of two additional claims alleging chemical weapons use on March 19 near Damascus and on Dec. 23 in Homs. Rebels say those attacks were carried out by government forces.
“I have made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders -- we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people or the transfer of these weapons to terrorists,” Obama said today in a speech in Jerusalem. “The world is watching, and we will hold you accountable.”
The UN investigation is clouded by divergent versions of what happened. Rebels said Assad’s forces used chemicals in the Aleppo assault and in a second attack on the same day in the suburbs of Damascus.
“I am of course aware that there are other allegations of similar cases involving the reported use of chemical weapons,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York. He stressed the need for “unfettered access” and said the mission he described as difficult would be dispatched “as soon as practically possible.”
Getting access into Syria, where few journalists and aid workers are allowed entry, won’t be easy. A UN team of monitors of the conflict in Syria departed last year, unable to leave their hotels or keep track of abuses committed on the ground.
The risk of chemical-weapons use raises the stakes in the two-year-old civil war. Obama has said Assad’s regime would cross a “red line” if it unleashed its chemical weapons arsenal, the region’s largest.
Obama said yesterday he was “deeply skeptical” of the regime’s charges, while emphasizing the need to gather facts about the claim. Proven use of a deadly gas, he said, would be a “game-changer.”
The U.S. supports “an investigation that pursues any and all credible allegations of possible chemical-weapons use in Syria, and underscores the importance of launching this investigation as swiftly as possible,” Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said in an e-mailed statement.
Both sides yesterday called for the UN to send a team of investigators. Western governments including the U.S., the U.K. and France are backing the rebels, while Russia is supporting the Assad regime, underlining splits in the international community over steps to stop hostilities from escalating.
Ban today showed he has some power to work around the impasse over Syria at the UN Security Council by dispatching a fact-finding mission. The most pertinent parallel goes back to the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.
UN chemical warfare experts traveled to the region in 1984, 1986 and 1987 to look into Iranian claims that Iraq had used chemical weapons and concluded in all three trip reports that Saddam Hussein’s regime had used gas on civilians.
Ban has repeatedly said the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances would constitute an “outrageous crime.”
Behind the war of words about Syria lies a debate among Western powers on whether and how to weigh in more forcefully to end a crisis that has killed more than 70,000 people, spurred a refugee exodus that threatens to destabilize neighboring Jordan and Lebanon, and increased the threat of chemical arms falling into the wrong hands as chaos spreads.
The U.K. has said it will supply armored vehicles and body armor for the opposition. France said it may act alone to arm the rebels.
While Syria’s government has produced, stored, and weaponized chemical arms, “little is known from open sources” about the stockpile’s size and condition, the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Research Service said in a report in December.
Assad’s regime has been reported to have stocks of nerve and blister agents such as sarin, VX and mustard gas.
The Syrian opposition -- which just elected a new interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto -- has accused Assad’s forces of using chemical agents before, most recently on Dec. 23. There have been no confirmed cases, and it wasn’t determined whether such allegations referred to deadly nerve agents such as sarin gas or nonlethal crowd-control irritants such as tear gas.
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