William Hague says the British government believes that Bashar al-Assad’s government is responsible for the “terrible atrocity” of a chemical weapons attack in Damascus.
The foreign secretary said it appears that Assad has “something to hide” in not allowing a UN investigative team, already in Damascus, to examine what has happened.
We do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime on a large scale. William Hague
He also rubbished the “conspiracy” that the attack could have been perpetrated by rebel forces.
Mr Hague said “I know that some people in the world would like to say this is some kind of conspiracy brought about by the opposition in Syria – I think the chances of that are vanishingly small.
“And so we do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime on a large scale, but we would like the United Nations to be able to assess that, so those who don’t believe that, for those who doubt that, the evidence can be gathered. But that is certainly our opinion.”
Mr Hague also said that “time is of the essence” when dealing with the evidence, which will deteriorate rapidly. He said the UN team, which is in Damascus to investigate three other attacks, must be allowed to investigate.
Time is of the essence. Every day without UN access is a day in which evidence can deteriorate or be hidden by those responsible. #Syria
— William Hague (@WilliamJHague) August 23, 2013
Mr Hague called the attack a “terrible atrocity”. Footage emerged from Syria on Wednesday and Thursday showing victims of the alleged attack, including many children.
People in the video showed symptoms of dilated pupils, frothing at the mouth, and limping or twitching limbs – signs of the use of a nerve agent such as sarin.
The death toll from the attack, on rebel held areas of eastern Damascus, has been reported as being as high as 1,729 people.
However the US President Barack Obama has downplayed the chances of the US getting involved, whatever is proved about the attack.
Despite calling the incident a “grave concern”, he said the human and financial costs of intervention in the Syria would make the US think twice.
Mr Obama said: “The notion that the US can somehow solve what is a sectarian complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated.”
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Barack Obama added that a chemical weapons attack, is proven, would be “very troublesome”.
“That starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region,” he said.
However Russia, Assad’s most powerful international ally, said that the Syrian government needs to co-operate with the UN. A statement from the foreign ministry also called for Syrian rebels to provide safe acceess to the area.
It also emerged on Friday that Syrian rebels are trying to get body-tissue samples to the UN team, who are holed up in the Four Seasons hotel in the government-controlled Damascus city centre.
The images of victims from this latest incident including many children are heart-breaking and sickening. Ban Ki-Moon
On Friday UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon said there would be “serious consequences” for the perpetrator of any chemical weapons attack.
He said: “I am especially troubled by reports of that chemical weapons might have been used against the civilian populations.
“Any use of chemical weapons, anywhere by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law. Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator.”
“The images of victims from this latest incident including many children are heart-breaking and sickening.”
This is a real child ripped from home, maybe even from a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend. Anthony Lake, Unicef
United Nations peace envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi believes the alleged attack increases urgency for an international peace conference, his spokeswoman said on Friday.
“He thinks that the recent escalation and grave (event) that happened in Syria, in Damascus close to the capital, should put an urgency to Geneva 2, to move forward on the political (talks) and should prove to the world that there is no military solution,” Khawla Mattar told a news briefing in Geneva.
The continuing carnage in Syria has created a major refugee crisis, with thousands crossing the border into places like Iraq on a weekly basis.
On Thursday, two UN agencies said that there were now one million child refugees of the conflict – roughly half of the two million registered refugees.
Around 740,000 of the child refugees are under 11.
“This one millionth child refugee is not just another number,” said Anthony Lake, the head of UNICEF, the UN children’s agency.
“This is a real child ripped from home, maybe even from a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend.”