The United Nations needs to investigate “as soon as possible” opposition allegations that a chemical weapons attack in Syria killed more than 1,300 people, UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said.
A team of UN inspectors is seeking access to an area near Damascus where the Syrian opposition says the chemical attack occurred, Eliasson told reporters in New York after a closed-door UN Security Council briefing. Amid fighting between government and rebel forces,“the security situation right now does not allow such access,” he said, calling for a “cessation of hostilities” by government and opposition forces.
The UN doesn’t yet have confirmation that toxic weapons were used, Eliasson said. The U.S. and European Union had appealed to the UN to investigate the claim. A UN inspection team is already in Syria, seeking to probe earlier charges about chemical weapons use.
President Bashar al-Assad’s government denied using chemical weapons there. The army said it was fighting “terrorists,” while the Foreign Ministry accused dissidents of trying to distract the UN inspectors who are in Damascus investigating previous claims of chemical weapons use.
The claim that more than 1,300 died in government shelling of the Ghouta district near the Damascus airport came from George Sabra, a member of the main political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, at a news conference in Istanbul. The coalition said the area was attacked with chemical weapons.
It was the most serious allegation of chemical weapons use since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. If confirmed, it would mark one of the worst atrocities in 2 1/2 years of fighting that has killed more than 100,000 Syrians, according to UN estimates. If disproved, it may cost the opposition trying to topple Assad vital credibility.
Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said “it would be extraordinary for the opposition to fake a claim on this scale.”
“If it can’t be verified beyond videos, then it’s going to be very embarrassing for the opposition and it will really weaken it and the regime will exploit that to the maximum,” Sayigh said by phone from Boston. “If the regime is totally innocent and hadn’t launched any chemical attack, then it would do everything it could to allow the UN team immediate access just so it can prove that this is a fabrication.”
There is “strong concern” among Security Council members about the allegations and the need for “clarity” about what happened, said Maria Cristina Perceval, Argentina’s ambassador to the UN.
All Security Council members agreed on a “strong call” for a cease-fire in Syria and that any use of chemical weapons by any side violates international law, she told reporters. Argentina holds the Security Council’s rotating presidency during August.
Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom, who’s heading the UN team investigating previous allegations of chemical weapons use, told Sweden’s TT newswire by phone from Damascus that the high numbers of injured and dead mentioned in the reports “sound suspicious.” He said he has seen only TV images of the attack.
Sellstrom is in discussions with the Syrian government on “all issues pertaining to the alleged use of chemical weapons” in the country as well as a newly reported incident in the suburbs of Damascus, UN spokesman Eduardo del Buey told reporters today in New York. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is “shocked” at the newly reported incident, Del Buey said.
With no solid information emerging, a slew of countries sought UN action. The U.S. said it had asked the UN to “urgently investigate this new allegation,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement that “such accusations should be immediately and thoroughly investigated by the United Nations expert mission which arrived recently in Syria.” The UN will meet later today to discuss the alleged attack, Argentina’s mission to the UN said in a post on its Twitter account.
“If verified, this would be a shocking escalation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters in Brussels. “We are determined the people responsible will one day be held to account.”
Martin Nesirky, spokesman for the UN’s Ban, said in an e-mailed statement that the UN team in Damascus “is following the current situation in Syria carefully, and remains fully engaged in the investigation process” as mandated by Ban.
The UN team arrived in Damascus on Aug. 18 at the government’s invitation and is permitted to stay for as long as 14 days, a deadline extendable upon further negotiation.
“We are aware of the reports about an alleged attack and we are trying to find out more,” Nesirky said.
Assad’s troops used “massive firepower” in the attack, Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Coventry, U.K.-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory, an activist group, said by phone. The activist group said on its Facebook page that it has documented about 100 confirmed dead in Ghouta.
Major General Salim Idris, chief of staff of the rebel Free Syrian Army, told al-Jazeera television that gas was fired from Mazzeh airport.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said if Syria had chemical weapons it would never use them on its own people. The army, in a statement on state television, said the claims reflect the “hysterical” state of the opposition.
Footage of Bodies
“Is it logical that Syria would use chemical weapons while the UN team is in Damascus or that it would use it so close to the capital while the wind is blowing?” Syrian lawmaker Fayez Sayegh said by phone from Damascus.
Sayegh said the government’s troops and warplanes had targeted armed insurgents in the suburbs and tried to avoid harming civilians.
Arab television channels including Al Arabiya and al-Jazeera, which the Syrian government accuses of bias against it, aired video taken by opposition members showing rooms of dead civilians, including children.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who in June pledged increased support for rebel forces in Syria not allied with Muslim extremists, has repeatedly said the use of chemical arms by Assad’s regime would cross a “red line” for the U.S. Both sides in the conflict have accused each other of using chemical weapons.
The Syrian conflict began on the heels of the widespread revolts in Arab nations in 2011. In addition to more than 100,000 dead, millions have been either displaced or become refugees in neighboring countries, Ban told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a July 25 meeting in New York.