Aug. 23 (Bloomberg) -- United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pressed for a UN team to gain access to the site of an alleged chemical attack in Syria, saying he sees “no good reason” for either side in the civil war to deny a chance to get to the truth of what happened.
Ban said today he has asked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government for its “full cooperation” so that the UN team of chemical experts already in Damascus can “swiftly investigate” the Aug. 21 attack that opposition groups say killed as many as 1,300 people.
“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 secretary-general said he has ordered his top envoy on disarmament affairs, Angela Kane, to travel to Damascus to discuss the alleged chemical attack. There’s “no time to waste” in seeking a halt to hostilities as the situation in Syria “continues to worsen,” Ban said.
Syrian troops yesterday renewed their artillery assault on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta where opposition groups say that hundreds were killed by toxic gas.
While the alleged chemical 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.
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. Two nurses treating victims of the attack have reportedly died after being exposed to chemical residue on their patients, according to the group, whose description of the attack’s aftermath couldn’t be independently verified.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the “very troublesome” allegations indicate “that this is clearly a big event of grave concern.” In an interview broadcast today on CNN’s “New Day” program, Obama said reports of chemicals weapons use by Syria are “something that’s going to require America’s attention.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington yesterday that “right now, we are unable to conclusively determine” the use of chemical arms. She said that U.S. officials are doing “everything possible within our power to nail down the facts.”
The opposition’s allegations against Assad’s regime have stirred calls for a swift international response. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the world should act “with force” if chemical weapons were deployed.
“If it’s true, the position of France is that there needs to be a reaction,” Fabius said on France’s RMC radio. “That reaction can take the form of force.”
Attack by Assad
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said, “We do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime on a large scale.” The “priority is to make sure the UN team can investigate on the ground and establish the facts,” he said in televised comments in London today.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters in Moscow yesterday that Syria, which has denied using chemical weapons, has pledged “maximum cooperation” with the UN experts. Russia is a long-time ally of the Assad regime and one of the Syrian government’s top arms suppliers.
The Obama administration urged the Assad regime to let the UN inspectors visit the location of the alleged attack to conduct a full investigation.
“That means allowing them to interview witnesses,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters yesterday. “That means allowing them to collect physical samples. And that allows them unfettered access to the region so that they can do their work.”
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.
Plans for peace talks in conjunction with the U.S. and Russia have stalled for months as Assad’s regime and opposition leaders jockey for stronger positions.
Ban said he’s working closely with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to convene a peace conference in Geneva “as soon as possible” to settle the Syria crisis.
“All the technical, logistical preparations are now complete,” Ban said of the Geneva talks. “It is a matter of time when we can and the parties are ready to participate.”
Kerry and Lavrov have struggled to bring the warring sides together to negotiate peace on the basis of an agreement brokered in talks last year, also held in Geneva. The follow-up meeting, dubbed “Geneva II,” has yet to occur after being repeatedly put off since May with no set dates or deadlines.
Deputies to Kerry and Lavrov are scheduled to meet in the Hague on Aug. 28, Psaki said yesterday. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford will meet leaders of the main political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, in Istanbul ahead of talks with the Russians, Psaki said.
It would be the first meeting of American and Russian officials since reports of the alleged chemical weapons attack this week.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and the Arab League’s special envoy on Syria, said the “outrageous” alleged use of chemical arms will expedite international efforts to convene talks in Geneva. Brahimi said he recently relocated to Geneva from New York to focus on preparing for a possible meeting in September, according to an e-mailed transcript of his interview today with UNTV.
Brahimi said he couldn’t definitively determine whether a conference will be held next month because the warring parties haven’t yet agreed that a political solution is the only way to end the fighting, according to the transcript.
“This allegation, that chemical weapons have been used a few kilometers from the heart of Damascus, as a matter of fact emphasizes the importance of this crisis and the danger it represents, not only for the Syrian people, not only for the region, but for the world,” Brahimi said.
There is “no doubt” that resolution of the Syrian crisis will dominate discussions at the UN General Assembly as well as a Group of 20 meeting in Russia next month, he said.