Syria crisis: France and Russia admit attack differences

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says he has "no doubt" that President Assad used chemical weapons

Russia and France's foreign ministers have disagreed over who is to blame for the chemical weapons attack in Syria.

After talks in Moscow, France's Laurent Fabius said the UN's report into the August incident left no doubt that the Syrian government was responsible.

But Russia's Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had "serious grounds" to believe the attack had been a provocation by rebel forces.

Mr Fabius is pressing Russia to support a Security Council resolution on Syria.

"When you look at the amount of sarin gas used, the vectors, the techniques behind such an attack, as well as other aspects, it seems to leave no doubt that the regime [of President Bashar al-Assad] is behind it," Mr Fabius said at a news conference in Moscow, referring to the much-anticipated UN report which was released on Monday.

In transmitting simultaneously to the Security Council and the General Assembly the report on the incident which took place on 21 August 2013 in the Ghouta area of Damascus (see annex), the Secretary-General expresses his profound shock and regret at the conclusion that chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale, resulting in numerous casualties, particularly among civilians and including many children. THE SECRETARY -GENERAL CONDEMNS IN THE STRONGEST POSSIBLE TERMS THE USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS and believes that this act is a war crimes and grave violation of the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare and other relevant rules of customary international law. The international community has a moral responsibility to hold accountable those responsible and for ensuring that chemical weapons can never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare.

Mr Lavrov said no decision on military intervention should be made before all the evidence had been considered.

"We want objective professional assessment of the events of 21 of August. We have serious grounds to believe this was a provocation... But the truth needs to be established and this will be a test of the future work of the Security Council."

He added that some of Russia's questions on the origins of the attack remained unanswered by the report, including whether the weapons were produced in a factory or home-made.

He also said any UN resolution calling for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons should not contain the threat of military action.

The BBC's Daniel Sandford in Moscow says Russia has delivered a promise from Syria to give up its chemical weapons, and it seems that at this stage Moscow does not feel like giving the Western allies anything more.

In other developments on Tuesday:

  • A car bomb exploded at the Bab al-Hawa crossing point with Turkey. Activists told Reuters news agency the blast struck a roadblock manned by Islamist brigades and that a number of people were hurt
  • UN emergency relief co-ordinator Valerie Amos says seven million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, with funding of $4.4bn (£2.76bn) required this year, of which only $1.84bn has been raised
  • Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov will meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Tuesday in Damascus, Russia's Interfax news agency reports
  • Human Rights Watch says any resolution at the UN should include referring the Syrian government to the International Criminal Court
'War crime'

The UN weapons inspectors' report said that the nerve agent sarin had been used against civilians on a relatively large scale in a suburb of Damascus on 21 August.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described the attack as a war crime.

Syria's chemical weapons

  • CIA believes Syria's chemical weapons can be "delivered by aircraft, ballistic missile, and artillery rockets"
  • Syria believed to possess mustard gas and sarin, and also tried to develop more toxic nerve agents such as VX gas
  • Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)

Sources: CSIS, RUSI

US allegations that the Syrian government was responsible had led to threats of military action.

But under a deal brokered at the weekend by Russia and the US, Syria will disclose its chemical weapons within a week and eliminate them by mid-2014.

France is now trying to win support for a UN resolution with the threat of serious consequences if this does not happen.

Russia, which is Syria's strongest ally, says the Assad government should first be given the chance to give up its chemical weapons.

On Monday, Russia said claims that the rebels were responsible could not be shrugged off, and it questioned why no rebel fighters were among the casualties if it were a government attack.

The US, UK and France all say the UN inspectors' report vindicates their stance that Syria was to blame for attack.

The US and UK ambassadors to the UN said technical details showed only the regime could have been responsible for the attack.

Mr Assad has denied responsibility and blamed rebels for the attack.

On Tuesday, the Syrian foreign ministry accused the US, UK and France of trying to "impose their will on the Syrian people" after they said they would press for the UN resolution.

Positive for sarin

The UN investigators examined blood, hair, urine and rocket samples from the scene of the attack.

Mr Ban said 85% of the blood samples had tested positive for sarin.

The report did not attribute blame, as that was not part of its remit, but Mr Ban was asked at a news conference whether he knew who was behind the attack.

He replied that "we may all have our own thoughts", but it was for "others to decide" what steps should be taken to bring those responsible to justice.

He said the mission was unable to verify the number of casualties, but referred to the "terrible loss of life on 21 August".

Mr Ban added this was the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988.

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