x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Calls mount for international action on alleged Syrian chemical weapons attacks

International pressure builds for action against those responsible for alleged nerve-gas strikes in the outskirts of Damascus, as UN investigators are kept from the site. Phil Sands reports

Children who survived the alleged gas attack in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus.
Children who survived the alleged gas attack in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus.

Urfa, Southern Turkey // International pressure mounted yesterday for action against those responsible for alleged nerve-gas strikes that opposition groups said killed hundreds of people on the outskirts of Damascus.

A UN investigation team, in the Syrian capital as part of a probe into other claims of chemical-weapons use, has still not visited nearby eastern Ghouta or Moadamiya, to the south-west of the city, the two areas hit in Wednesday's attacks.

With regime artillery bombardments and airstrikes continuing yesterday, opposition activists said they were still finding corpses from the day before inside homes, unmarked except for signs of suffocation and poisoning.

The activists have reported death tolls from Wednesday ranging from 170 to 1,700.

Graphic videos depicting horrific scenes of what appears to have been a gas attack have driven international demands for an independent investigation.

France, one of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad's strongest critics, said if evidence were found that this had been a chemical strike by the regime, a reaction involving force would be required.

The US is under pressure to respond to the allegations. It said yesterday that it had yet to "conclusively determine" that chemical weapons were used.

The Obama administration and the UK have demanded immediate access for the UN inspectors.

The GCC, which backs the opposition, said it was time for the international community to "shoulder its responsibilities" and pass a Chapter 7 UN Security Council resolution authorising military intervention to protect civilians.

Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said lack of a firm international response would make it impossible to stop future atrocities. "Several red lines have been crossed. If sanctions are not imposed immediately, then we will lose our power to deter," he said after talks in Germany.

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said the allegations of the chemical attacks were "so serious, so monstrous that it is necessary to enable a real examination before talking or speculating about consequences".

But chances of a timely UN inspection, let alone a united international military intervention, seem slight.

Russia, a key ally of Mr Al Assad, has called the chemical allegations a provocation by rebels seeking western military intervention.

But the foreign ministry yesterday urged the Syrian government and the UN to agree on a visit by chemical weapons experts to the site of the attack. Under its mandate, the 20-strong team of UN weapons experts is only allowed to go to three pre-determined locations.

Sana, Syria's state-run news agency, yesterday quoted information minister Umran Al Zaubie ruling out a change in the inspectors' tasks.

Mr Al Zaubie said he had stressed the inspection team was there at the regime's request and that "it will be investigating in three sites … and it will finish its work in two weeks".

It also cited him as saying "the Syrian state does not and will not use these weapons - in case they exist - under any circumstances".

Syria has a large stockpile of chemical weapons and has previously assured Russia it would not use them to crush the revolt, although it officially refuses to acknowledge their existence.

Negotiations to get the UN team into Damascus, where it has not yet started its inspections, dragged on for eight months - a delay that seriously degrades any physical evidence of chemical weapons use.

Were a similar period to elapse after Wednesday's alleged chemical strikes, it would be next April by the time an inspection took place.

Israel's minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, said yesterday its intelligence agency assessments were that "chemical weapons were used, and of course not for the first time".

The US, as well as France and the UK, have all said they believe Mr Al Assad's forces have used chemical weapons on a small scale on previous occasions.

Iran, another key military backer of Mr Al Assad, denied regime forces had used chemical munitions, saying if poison gas had been fired, rebels were responsible.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a widely used source for casualties, said yesterday it had so far been able to confirm more than 170 deaths, based on three sources, with 109 deaths in East Ghouta and 61 in Moadamiya.

"There are hundreds of reported deaths as a result of the massacre that are still being confirmed by he SOHR," it said on its Facebook page.

Demonstrations were reported across Syria by activists yesterday in support of the Ghouta and Moadamiya.

psands@thenational.ae

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