The UN Security Council has called for “a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation” of the latest allegation of chemical weapons use in Syria.
The council backed Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s determination to ensure a “thorough investigation” of the alleged attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus that killed at least 100 people.
Meanwhile, the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this morning there must be a reaction with "force" if chemical weapons are found to have been used in an attack.
UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said earlier that the secretary-general was “shocked” at yesterday’s alleged use of chemical weapons and wants all reported incidents investigated.
But during a two-hour closed-door meeting, diplomats said Russia and China, which backs the Syrian government, blocked a stronger press statement supported by Britain, France, the US and others.
However Russia and China agreed that the council president could sum up the session with “press elements” – close to the weakest response from the UN’s most powerful body, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.
Argentina’s UN Ambassador Maria Cristina Perceval, the current council president, told reporters there was “strong concern” about the latest allegations of alleged chemical weapons use “and a general sense that there must be clarity on what happened”.
Syrian anti-government activists accused President Bashar Assad’s regime of carrying out a toxic gas attack that killed at least 100 people, including many children as they slept. The government denied using chemical weapons.
Ms Perceval said council members “welcomed the determination of the secretary-general to ensure a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation.
“All council members agreed that any use of chemical weapons by any side under any circumstances is a violation of international law.
“There was also an agreement for a strong call for a cessation of hostilities and a cease-fire ... (and) the need for immediate humanitarian assistance to the victims.”
The attack coincided with the visit to Syria by a 20-member UN chemical weapons team which only has a mandate to investigate three previous allegations of chemical weapons use.
Before the council meeting, a letter drafted by Britain and France was sent to the secretary-general requesting that the team launch “an urgent investigation ... as expeditiously as possible” into yesterday’s incident as well.
Britain’s deputy UN ambassador Philip Parham said about 35 countries signed the letter, including the US.
The letter, obtained by The Associated Press, cited “credible reports of the use of chemical weapons” and urged the secretary-general “to do all you can to ensure that the mission has urgent access to all relevant sites and sources of information”.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who briefed the council, expressed hope that the Syrian government will give the team access to the site as soon as possible, though he cautioned that “the security situation right now does not allow such access”.
He stressed: “This represents, no matter what conclusions are, a serious escalation with grave humanitarian consequences and human consequences.”
He called for a cessation of hostilities not only in the area of the alleged attack but throughout Syria, where the UN says more than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
A White House spokesman said the US supported a UN investigation and a Security Council debate.
Under the terms of an agreement between the UN and the Syrian government, the UN team will investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack on March 19 on the village of Khan al Assal outside the city of Aleppo, which was captured by the rebels last month. It will investigate two other sites of alleged attacks, which are being kept secret for security reasons.
Chemical weapons experts have raised doubts about whether anything will be found at the three sites because the alleged attacks took place months ago.
But if chemical weapons were used yesterday, a prompt investigation would be much more likely to produce evidence.
Mr Del Buey said the head of the UN team, Swedish professor Ake 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”.
The UN team will report on whether chemical weapons were used, and if so which ones, but it will not decide the responsibility for an attack. This has led some commentators to question the value of the investigation.
On June 13, the US said it had conclusive evidence that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against opposition forces.
That crossed what President Barack Obama had called a “red line” and prompted a US decision to send arms and ammunition to the opposition, though reports say nothing has arrived yet.
Israel added its voice to claims that chemical weapons were used in the attack.
Yuval Steinitz, the minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, said Israel’s assessment was based on “intelligence estimates”.
Mr Steinitz told Israel Radio that the attack was not the first time such agents were used. He appeared to blame Assad and called his regime “exceptionally cruel”.
Israel has accused Assad of deploying chemical weapons in the past and has repeatedly expressed concern that its neighbour’s chemical arsenal could fall into the hands of anti-Israel militants.
Meanwhile, Syrian activists said Assad’s forces were pressing on with the military offensive in the rebel-held Damascus suburbs.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it had no word on casualties in a new bombing of eastern Ghouta.