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Thursday, August 22, 2013

UN Council seeks 'clarity' on Syria chem weapons claim

by Staff Writers New York, United States / United Nations (AFP)

UN must probe Syria chemical attacks claim: rights groupsBeirut (AFP) Aug 22, 2013 - The Syrian government must give access to UN weapons inspectors now in Damascus to the sites of alleged deadly chemical attacks near the capital, human rights organisations have said. Separate calls by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International came after Syria's opposition accused the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of massacring more than 1,300 people on Wednesday.
The government has strongly denied the allegations.
"The Syrian authorities... should immediately facilitate the visit of the UN team to Eastern Ghouta and other locations," said Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
The team must be given "unimpeded access to all locations to investigate these and any other incidents of alleged use of chemical weapons", Sahraoui said Wednesday.
Should the allegations be true, "the attacks would amount to war crimes," she said, while renewing Amnesty's call for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thursday that the descriptions its staff heard from witnesses are "consistent with the use of chemical nerve agents."
"A huge number of people in Ghouta are dead, doctors and witnesses are describing horrific details that look like a chemical weapons attack and the government claims it didn't do it," said Joe Stork, HRW's acting Middle East director.
"The only way to find out what really happened in Ghouta is to let UN inspectors in," Stork added.
HRW cited two doctors describing the symptoms of patients they were treating including suffocation, muscle spasms, frothing at the mouth and pin-point pupils.
"These symptoms are consistent with nerve agent poisoning," said the organisation.
However, some specialists in the effects of chemical weapons have said video evidence was not entirely convincing.
The inspectors arrived in Damascus on Sunday with a mandate to investigate three sites for the alleged use of chemical weapons.
They are Khan al-Assal in the northern province of Aleppo, where rebels and the army blamed each other for using chemical weapons in March, as well as Ataybeh near Damascus and Homs in central Syria.
UN Security Council members are seeking "clarity" on opposition claims that Syrian troops used chemical weapons in an attack near Damascus, Argentina's UN envoy, the council president, said Wednesday.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's office said earlier he was "shocked" by the reports and that UN weapons experts in Syria to probe previous allegations were in discussions with Damascus.
"There must be clarity on what happened and the situation must be followed carefully," Argentina's envoy Maria Cristina Perceval said after the council met behind closed doors.
Council members -- who were briefed by Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson -- "welcomed the determination of the secretary general to ensure a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation," she said.
Perceval, whose country is presiding over the Council for the month of August, said members had expressed "strong concern" about the allegations made by the Syrian opposition.
There was a "strong call for a cessation of hostilities and for a ceasefire," she said.
The main Syrian opposition group claims as many as 1,300 people were killed in a chemical weapons attack Wednesday on rebel areas near Damascus.
Videos distributed by activists, the authenticity of which could not immediately be verified, showed medics attending to suffocating children and hospitals being overwhelmed.
"All Council members agree that any use of chemical weapons by any side under any circumstances is a violation of international law," Perceval said, highlighting the need for "immediate humanitarian assistance to the victims."
The council did not issue a formal statement at the end of the meeting. Diplomats said Russia and China -- who have repeatedly backed Syria since the start of the crisis -- had opposed the adoption of a statement.
Council members France, Britain, the United States, Luxembourg and South Korea had requested Wednesday's meeting.
Several council members including the United States and France have asked that the team of UN inspectors be dispatched immediately to the scene to investigate.
Washington demanded that Syria provide immediate access to the site, while Russia, a close ally of the Syrian government, called the opposition claims a "provocation."
Britain, France, Germany and the United States sent a formal request for an investigation of the incident to Ban's office.
Diplomats said the joint letter cited "credible reports of the use of chemical weapons."
"We urge you to do all you can to ensure that the mission has urgent access to all relevant sites and sources of information," the letter said.
Earlier, a UN diplomat however said it would be difficult for the UN experts to investigate the incident because the alleged attack site was not one of three where the Syrian regime had agreed to UN inspections.
That means that the head of the UN experts in Syria, Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, must negotiate access to the new site with Syrian authorities, the diplomat said.
A UN statement said Sellstrom's team was "following the current situation in Syria carefully, and remains fully engaged in the investigation process that is mandated by the Secretary General.
"Professor Sellstrom is in discussions with the Syrian Government on all issues pertaining to the alleged use of chemical weapons, including this most recent reported incident."
Eliasson said the UN hoped the experts "will be given access to the area by the government" but acknowledged that "the security situation right now does not allow such access."
"This represented a serious escalation," Eliasson said. "There is a great need for a cessation of hostilities in this particular area, and in general."

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