Middle East

West has evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Thursday, March 21, 2013, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mark Garten)

BEIRUT: Regime warplanes pounded the country Friday, a day after Western diplomats said they had “hard evidence” chemical weapons have been used at least once in the Syrian conflict, but that it was now unlikely a U.N. investigation team would enter the country.

Speaking to reporters, a Western diplomat said, “In one case we have hard evidence," AFP reported late Thursday.

"There are several examples where we are quite sure that shells with chemicals have been used in a very sporadic way," the diplomat added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Syrian government initially called for a U.N. investigation after it claimed rebels attacked the Khan al-Assal area of Aleppo province March 19. Opposition groups disputed this, and said the army was responsible.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon assembled an investigation unit, but Syria then refused entry to the team, saying it wanted wider access than it was willing to give.

Syrian government troops were among those killed or wounded in the attack, according to diplomats, AFP added.

"It is regrettable that the Syrian government has rejected my offer to engage in (an) investigation," Ban said Thursday after talks with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington.

Ban had demanded "unfettered access" to all of Syria before sending the team. "They are now ready. They can be deployed any time soon; so this is my urgent appeal," Ban told reporters.

At the close of a G8 foreign ministers’ meeting in London, which ended Thursday, a statement read, “The Ministers condemned the ongoing use of heavy weapons against residential areas and reaffirm their view that any use of chemical weapons would demand a serious international response.”

Friday morning and overnight Thursday, regime warplanes shelled the suburbs of Latakia, Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Raqqa and Deraa, activists said.

At least 159 people were killed across the country Thursday, according to the Local Coordination Committees activist group, including 17 women and 18 children.

Fierce clashes were also taking place Friday between rebels and regime forces west of Homs near the Lebanese border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another activist group, said.

Syrian state media reported that the army prevented a "terrorist" infiltration from Lebanon, just west of Homs, and in the process, many rebels were killed, it said. 

Also late Thursday, Obama authorized the release of up to $10 million in food and medicine for rebels in Syria, saying the war there had reached a "critical" point.

After meeting with Ban, Obama said they would work together to try to improve conditions in Syria and establish the foundations for a political transition.

"Secretary-General Ban and I shared the view that we are at a critical juncture, that it is important for us to bring about an effective political transition that would respect the rights of all Syrians and that, in the interim, it's important for us to try to eliminate some of the carnage that has been taking place directed at civilians and non-combatants," Obama said.

The aid package, which will take the form of medical kits and military food rations, had been announced by Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting of the "Friends of Syria" in Rome in February, but the details and volume had not been disclosed at the time. – With Agencies





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