UN: Alleged Syria chemical attacks 'serious escalation'

The BBC's Emily Thomas: "Scene of horror in the rebel-held suburbs"

UN officials say alleged chemical weapons attacks which Syria's opposition says killed hundreds near Damascus were a "serious escalation".

Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson made the comments after briefing an emergency UN Security Council meeting about Wednesday's incident.

The Security Council also said that clarity was needed over the attacks.

Some 35 member states called for UN weapons inspectors already in Syria to be dispatched immediately to the scene.

Opposition activists said that more than 1,000 people were killed after government forces launched rockets with toxic agents into the Damascus suburbs in the Ghouta region early on Wednesday.

Analysis

The chances of the UN chemical weapons inspectors in Syria accessing the true site of Wednesday's alleged chemical attack in time to make a clear judgement on responsibility are slim.

It took months to negotiate permission for them to visit other sites around the country and the Syrian government, backed by Russia, is resisting calls to give them access to the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta where this apparent atrocity took place. Part of the reason is the area is contested between government forces and rebels and is therefore unsafe.

If an agent such as sarin has been used, the UN team would need to get to the site within days before traces become so faint as to be inconclusive. And if, as the opposition claims, it was a government attack, then a delay of days or weeks would give it enough time for forensic evidence to become controversial and for evidence of munitions used to be removed. The Syrian government insists it was the rebels who carried out the attack.

The Syrian government has denied the allegations, describing them as "illogical and fabricated". The Syrian army said the opposition made up the claims to divert attention from the huge losses its forces had suffered recently.

The BBC has been unable to independently confirm the death toll.

Calls for clarity

"There must be clarity on what happened and the situation must be followed closely," Argentina's UN ambassador and current Security Council president, Maria Cristina Perceval, said after a closed-door meeting on Wednesday evening.

Council members also "welcomed the determination of the Secretary-General (Ban Ki-moon) to ensure a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation", she added.

Mr Eliasson, who also spoke to reporters after the meeting, said any investigation into the incident would require the consent of the Syrian government and was dependent on the security situation.

This followed calls by some 35 member states - including the US, UK and France - for the UN chemical weapons inspectors that are already probing three sites of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria to be dispatched immediately to the scene to investigate.

The inspectors arrived in Damascus on Sunday with a mandate to investigate three locations including the northern town of Khan al-Assal, where some 26 people were killed in March.

Jan Eliasson: "This represents a serious escalation with grave humanitarian consequences"

But the official Syrian Sana news agency said reports of the latest attack were "baseless", describing them as "an attempt to divert the UN chemical weapons investigation commission away from carrying out its duties".

BBC correspondents say China and Russia - which have repeatedly backed the Syrian government since the crisis began - blocked a stronger security council press statement supported by the 35 states.

Convulsions

Opposition activists say the attack took place as part of heavy government bombardment in the region surrounding Damascus, with government forces trying to drive out rebel forces. The areas said to have been affected included Irbin, Duma and Muadhamiya.

Activist footage shows dozens of bodies with no visible signs of injuries, including small children, laid out on the floor of a clinic. Other videos show people being treated in makeshift hospitals, with victims, including many children, having convulsions.

Children, affected by what activists say was a gas attack, breathe through oxygen masks in the Damascus suburb of Saqba on 21 August 2013 Many children were among those clearly shown in distress in activist footage

While it is not clear how many died in the bombardment of the sites and how many deaths were due to any exposure to toxic substances, experts say it would be almost impossible to fake so many dead and injured including children and babies.

Ghazwan Bwidany, a doctor treating the injured, told the BBC the main symptom, especially among children, was suffocation, as well as salivating and blurred vision.

Prof Alexander Kekule, of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at Halle University in Germany, told the BBC that one of the videos - although of poor quality - was consistent with the aftermath of an attack with a chemical agent.

But he added that none of the patients showed typical signs of sarin or other organophosphorous nerve agents, or signs of blistering agents.

International concern

On Thursday French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said there needed to be "a reaction of force" if the use of chemical weapons were to be proven.

Chemical weapons claims

  • Khan al-Assal, 19 March 2013 - Syrian state media accuse rebels of killing 31 people with rockets containing "chemical materials". Rebels blame the army for the attack.
  • Al-Otaybeh, 19 March 2013 - Opposition activists allege an attack in which six people are reported dead, apparently in reprisal for gains made by rebel forces.
  • Adra, 24 March 2013 - The LCC activist network say two people are killed in an attack.
  • Sheikh Maqsoud, Aleppo, 13 April 2013 - At least three people are killed in an attack; internet footage of the victims shows symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve gas.
  • Saraqeb, 29 April 2013 - Eyewitnesses say canisters containing a poisonous gas are dropped from a helicopter above the town. Eight people are injured, one of whom later dies.
  • Ghouta, 21 August 2013 - By far the most serious alleged incident, with hundreds reported dead in attacks on the outskirts of Damascus

However, Mr Fabius ruled out the possibility of sending troops into Syria.

The US expressed its "deep concern" over the alleged chemical weapons attacks on Wednesday and formally requested the UN to "urgently investigate".

The alleged attack comes a year after US President Barack Obama warned the Syrian government that using chemical weapons would cross a "red line".

Meanwhile, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said that if confirmed, the attacks would mark a "shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria".

But the Russian foreign ministry noted that the reports had emerged just as the UN chemical weapons inspection team had arrived in Syria, saying that "this makes us think that we are once again dealing with a premeditated provocation".

Both the rebels and government forces have accused each other of using chemical weapons throughout the 28-month conflict.

It has not been possible to independently verify the claims.

In July 2012, the Syrian government implicitly admitted what had long been suspected - that Syria had stocks of chemical weapons.

Experts believe the country has large undeclared stockpiles of mustard gas and sarin nerve agent.

Damascus said the weapons, stored and secured by the armed forces, would never be used "inside Syria", but could be used against an external attack.

Map of Damascus Ghouta

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