UNITED NATIONS // Syria yesterday called on the UN secretary general to set up an "independent" investigation into its claims that opposition rebels have used chemical weapons in an attack, its UN envoy said.
Rebels in northern Syria denied the claim and blamed regime forces for Tuesday's missile attack on Khan Al Assad village in the northern Aleppo province that killed 31 people.
Western diplomats said that there was no confirmation that chemical weapons had been used by either side in the two-year-old conflict.
Syria's UN ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, said yesterday he had requested the secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon, "to form a specialised, independent and neutral technical mission to investigate the use by the terrorist groups operating in Syria of chemical weapons yesterday against civilians in the town of Khan Al Assad in Aleppo." The Syrian government refers to the rebels as "terrorists".
Mr Ja'afari said Syria asked the secretary-general for assistance "in a sign of good faith, good will, good intentions" to the international community, international public opinion and the Syrian people.
He said that the Syrian government had sent a letter to the secretary-general and the UN Security Council in December warning of the possible use of chemical weapons by rebel groups who would then accuse the government of a chemical weapons attack.
"The Syrian government, if it had such weapons, will never use them against its own population," Mr Ja'afari said.
UN Security Council nations are remaining cautious about the claims from both sides.
"We simply don't have any information to corroborate, verify, substantiate" the allegations by either side, a senior UN diplomat said.
The US ambassador to Syria told Congress yesterday that there is so far no evidence to back reports that chemical weapons were used.
"So far, we have no evidence which substantiates the reports that chemical weapons were used ... But I want to underline that we are looking very carefully at these reports," Robert Ford, who was recalled from Damascus in February 2012, said.
"We view this issue with extreme seriousness," Mr Ford told the congressional hearing. "Right now we are trying to verify the reports we have seen recently about the use.
"There are reports about them being used both in the north and in the Damascus suburbs," he said.
Barack Obama, the US president, has warned there would be consequences if Syria used chemical weapons, but has not spelt out what those would be. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the US house of representatives's intelligence committee, told CBS This Morning that the US knows "there has been some forensic evidence that at least small quantities" of chemical weapons may have been used in Syria.
Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said the US would not stand by if it turned out the regime had used chemical weapons, but he declined to say whether he believed the reports could be true.
"If this is substantiated, it does suggest ... that this is a game-changer. And we will act accordingly," Mr McDonough told CNN. "This is something we take very, very seriously."
Israel's intelligence minister said yesterday that his country was concerned about the purported use of chemical agents in Syria.
"It's clear that chemical weapons have been used against civilians by the rebels or by the government," Youval Steinitz told Israeli Army Radio.
"This is very concerning for us and we must deal with it urgently."
Russia and Iran, both allies of Mr Al Assad, said they had received information proving rebels had used chemical agents.
* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press