Aug. 23 (Bloomberg) -- The U.K. accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government of carrying out an attack using chemical weapons that opposition groups say killed 1,300 people, as calls grew for United Nations inspectors to be given access to the site near Damascus.
“Some people in the world would like to say this is some kind of conspiracy brought about by the opposition in Syria,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said in televised comments in London today. “I think the chances of that are vanishingly small, and so we do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime on a large scale.”
Hague, who spoke to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last night and will confer with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later today, said the “priority is to make sure the UN team can investigate on the ground and establish the facts.” President Barack Obama said the reports of chemical-weapons use are “something that’s going to require America’s attention.”
Syrian troops yesterday renewed their artillery assault on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta where opposition groups say that hundreds were killed by toxic gas the day before. While the attack hasn’t been independently confirmed, doctors on the scene reported injuries consistent with the use of nerve gas and pesticides, and photos and video footage posted on the Internet showed bodies without visible wounds.
Earlier today, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he saw “no good reason” for either side in Syria’s civil war to deny a chance to get to the truth of what happened and that he’d asked Assad’s government for its “full cooperation” to allow a swift investigation by the UN team of chemical experts already in Damascus.
“Any use of chemical weapons, anywhere, by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law,” Ban said in a speech in Seoul. “Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences.”
A chemical attack, if confirmed, would be a war crime and the worst atrocity in 2 1/2 years of civil war in which more than 100,000 Syrians have died and 2 million more have fled to neighboring countries, according to UN estimates. The U.S. and European powers have resisted opposition appeals for more help as Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia bolster Assad.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said today that Lavrov and Kerry agreed on the need to conduct an “objective investigation” in a phone call yesterday.
Hague said the UN Security Council would need to meet again to strengthen the inspectors’ mandate if the team in Damascus isn’t granted access to the site.
“Time is of the essence in these things -- the evidence will deteriorate over a matter of days,” Hague said.
In an interview broadcast today on CNN’s “New Day” program, Obama said allegations that Syria used chemical weapons “on a large scale” get to “some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.”
Obama told CNN that “we don’t expect cooperation” from Assad’s government, “given their past history.”
The “very troublesome” allegations indicate “that this is clearly a big event of grave concern,” he said.
Obama, who in June pledged increased support for rebel forces in Syria not allied with Muslim extremists, has repeatedly said the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime would cross a “red line” for the U.S.
The UN secretary-general said he’d ordered his top envoy on disarmament, Angela Kane, to travel to Damascus to discuss the alleged attack. There’s “no time to waste” in seeking a halt to hostilities as the situation in Syria “continues to worsen,” Ban said.
The medical center in east Ghouta has counted 1,302 bodies, according to a e-mailed statement yesterday from the Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based nonprofit licensed to raise funds for the opposition Free Syrian Army. Many civilian victims were found unconscious in the street, the group said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said yesterday the world should act “with force” if chemical weapons had been deployed.
Hague said the U.K. government would not “rule out any options for the future” should Syria refuse access to inspectors. “Any option that complies with international law, and could save innocent lives, we have to be open to those options. But decisions about that would come later. Now, we have to establish the facts.”
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