The United Nations yesterday demanded Syria give its chemical weapons experts immediate access to rebel-held Damascus suburbs where poison gas appears to have killed hundreds just a few miles from the UN team’s hotel.
There was no sign, however, that scientists would soon be taking samples at the scene of horrors that have drawn comparison with the gassing of thousands of Iraqi Kurds at Halabja in 1988.
However, there were reports on Sky News last night that Russia has joined international calls for UN investigators to be allowed access to the site.
Syria’s staunchest ally suggested the attack — which Syrian rebels claim killed 1,300 people — could be a “premeditated provocation” by opposition forces.
But it urged the Syrian government and the UN to agree on a visit by the experts, who are already in the country to examine previous claims of chemical weapons use in the two-and-a-half year civil war.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Syria’s position on sending inspectors to the site of the reported attack should be respected, but dismissed the suggestion that Russia would object to such an investigation.
“We, quite the opposite, have an interest in the investigation into what happened (to) happen objectively.”
President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents gave death tolls from 500 to well over 1,000 and said more bodies were being found in the wake of Wednesday’s mysterious pre-dawn killer fumes, which the Syrian government insists were not its doing.
Images, including some by freelance photographers supplied to Reuters, showed scores of bodies laid out on floors with no visible signs of injury. Some had foam at the nose and mouth.
Talk, notably from France and Britain, of a forceful foreign response remains unlikely to be translated into rapid, concerted action given division between the West and Russia at Wednesday’s UN Security Council meeting, and caution from Washington yesterday.
On Wednesday, the Security Council merely called in vague terms for “clarity”.
Yesterday, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said Syria must let the UN team already in Damascus investigate “without delay”. He said he would send a top disarmament official, Angela Kane, to lobby the Syrian government in person.
Ban said he expected a swift, positive answer.
US president Barack Obama has directed US intelligence agencies to urgently help establish what caused the deaths, a State Department spokeswoman said.
Former weapons investigators say every hour matters. “The longer it takes, the easier it is for anybody who has used it to try to cover up,” said Demetrius Perricos, who headed the UN’s team of weapons inspectors in Iraq.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said world powers must respond with force if allegations that Syria’s government was responsible prove true. But even Fabius stressed there was no question of sending in troops on the ground.
Britain, too, said no option should be ruled out “that might save innocent lives in Syria”. But European forces can do little without US help, and Washington shows little appetite for war.
Syrian officials have called allegations against their forces “illogical and fabricated”. They point to the timing of the attack, days after UN inspectors arrived after months of argument, and to previous assurances that, if they possessed chemical weapons, they would never use them against Syrians.
Many rebels and activists in the opposition area say they have lost interest in promises of UN investigations or in help from abroad: “We are 7km away, just a five-minute car ride from where they are staying,” said activist Bara Abdelrahman.
“We’re being exterminated with poison gas while they drink their coffee and sit inside their hotels.”
A spokesman from the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition said bodies were still being found on the outskirts of Damascus.
“We expect the number to grow because we just discovered a neighbourhood in Zamalka where there are houses full of dead people,” said Khaled Saleh.
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