Syria asks the UN to independently investigate what it claims is the use of chemical weapons by “terrorist groups” – Syria’s name for rebels currently fighting government troops.
Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said on Wednesday that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon had been asked to launch an independent investigation into the incident near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Tuesday (see video, below).
“The Syrian government has requested the Secretary-General of the United Nations to form a specialized, independent and a neutral, technical mission to investigate the use by the terrorist groups operating in Syria of chemical weapons yesterday against civilians,” Ja’afari told reporters.
If we had chemical weapons we would never use them due to moral, humanitarian and political reasons – Omran al-Zoabi, Syrian information minister
If confirmed, it would be the first use of such weapons in the two-year-old conflict.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, David Cameron said he would be pushing for further changes to the UN arms embargo – which could raise the prospect of arming the rebels.
Mr Cameron said: “The French president and I discussed at the European Council looking for further changes to the arms embargo that will be discussed by foreign affairs ministers this weekend.
“The reason for that is two-fold. First of all, it sends a peculiar message that the arms embargo still applies pretty much equally to this hateful regime and to the opposition, who we recognise as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
“And second, the French president is concerned and I am concerned we should not be restricted for months and months ahead when we don’t know exactly what could happen in Syria, including the very worrying reports of the use of chemical weapons.”
He was challenged by Labour leader Ed Milliband, who warned that the introduction of weapons into Syria could be “counter-productive”.
In response Mr Cmaeron compared the discussions going on to “the discussions we had about Bosnia and the appalling events that followed”. He said: “It is worth recalling the fact the current policies are not working for the people of Syria. Seventy thousand people are dead and this hateful regime is still in place.”
Syria’s government and rebels have accused each other of launching the deadly chemical attack, but across the world opinion on whether chemicals were used is divided.
Syrian state television, SANA, reported the attack saying: “Terrorists fired a rocket containing chemical substances in the Khan al-Assal area of rural Aleppo and initial reports indicate that around 15 people were killed, most of them civilians.”
We learned that the regime was turning these reports against us. The rebels were not behind this attack – Qassim Saadeddine, senior rebel and spokesman for the Higher Military Council in Aleppo
The announcement was followed by Syria’s minister of information, Omran al-Zoabi (pictured, below right), saying that the rebels, backed by Turkey, bore “legal, moral and political responsibility” for the “dangerous escalation”.
“Syria’s army leadership has stressed this before and we say it again, if we had chemical weapons we would never use them due to moral, humanitarian and political reasons,” he said.
However, rebels have responded by insisting they are not responsible for the use of chemicals. Qassim Saadeddine (pictured, below left), a senior rebel and spokesman for the Higher Military Council in Aleppo, said: “We were hearing reports from early this morning about a regime attack on Khan al-Assal, and we believe they fired a Scud with chemical agents. Then suddenly we learned that the regime was turning these reports against us. The rebels were not behind this attack.”
Alex Thomson blogs: How can we find the truth about chemical weapons in Syria?
Rebels from the Free Syria Army also denied the attack. In a video posted on a social media website, one solider, surrounded by five others, read from a laptop:
“We deny what the Syrian government media has published about using a chemical rocket in the west suburb of Aleppo in the town of Khan Al-Assal, and we warn the regime is spreading this news to justify using chemical weapons in the west suburb of Aleppo and we demand human rights organisations and the UN and all international organisations to take action as fast as is possible because if the regime starts using chemical weapons, then we will be having a huge human crisis.
“What has happened is as following: The Syrian government forces tried to target the police school by a rocket and we think that the rocket was Scud type, but the rocket hit the wrong area which is under the control of the Syrian government forces and where the regime forces and the Shabeeha are.
We are very seriously concerned by the fact that weapons of mass destruction are falling into the hands of the rebels – Russian foreign ministry
“We learned from trusted sources that there are cases of suffocation and poisoning by phosphorus compounds which were used by the regime in Khan Al-Assal and we hold the regime fully responsible for the use of internationally prohibited weapons. Victory for our blessed revolution.”
The attack has been reported to have killed 25 people. Witnesses said the area smelt of chlorine and that people were dropping down dead in the street.
The Syrian Information Ministry has said that Nusra Front rebels previously seized a private factory in eastern Aleppo that contained tonnes of poisonous chlorine material.
Governments of different nations have taken differing viewpoints on whether or not chemicals had been used and, if so, by whom.
Barack Obama pledged that the US would thoroughly investigate reports of chemical weapons use, but cast doubt on claims that the Syrian opposition had already deployed them.
Speaking during his first visit to Israel since becoming US president, Mr Obama instead warned that use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be “a serious and tragic mistake” and that the Assad regime would be held accountable for any use or transfer of such weapons.
The Russian foreign ministry, which has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said in a statement: “According to information coming from Damascus, a case of the use of chemical weapons by the armed opposition was recorded early in the morning of March 19 in Aleppo province.
We would warn the regime against making these kinds of charges as any kind of pretext to cover for its use of chemical weapons Jay Carney, White House spokesman
“We are very seriously concerned by the fact that weapons of mass destruction are falling into the hands of the rebels, which further worsens the situation in Syria and elevates the confrontation in the country to a new level.”
Turkey denied that it had been involved in any use of chemical weapons alongside Syrian rebels. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said: “This is typical of Syria. Syria attacked its own people with chemical weapons and it continues to do so. They even used phosphorus grenades in the past and this has been published in the media.”
Britain’s UN ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said: “We have seen those reports, they haven’t yet been fully verified. But clearly if chemical weapons were used then that would be abhorrent and it would require a serious response from the international community.”