White House Seeks U.N. Inquiry on Alleged New Syrian Chem Strike

Global Security Newswire Staff
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Global Security Newswire Staff
Aug. 21, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

The White House on Wed­nes­day con­demned the pos­sible new use of chem­ic­al weapons in Syr­ia and called for a U.N. team now in the Middle East na­tion to in­vest­ig­ate with ur­gency.

“The United States is deeply con­cerned by re­ports that hun­dreds of Syr­i­an ci­vil­ians have been killed in an at­tack by Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment forces, in­clud­ing by the use of chem­ic­al weapons, near Dam­as­cus earli­er today,” Josh Earn­est, Pres­id­ent Obama’s prin­cip­al deputy press sec­ret­ary, said in a re­leased state­ment. “We are work­ing ur­gently to gath­er ad­di­tion­al in­form­a­tion.”

The spokes­man called on “those re­spons­ible for the use of chem­ic­al weapons” to “be held ac­count­able.”

The White House said it form­ally was re­quest­ing that Swedish arms ex­pert Ake Sell­strom and his U.N.-sponsored team probe the new al­leg­a­tions. The in­vest­ig­at­ors ar­rived in the Middle East na­tion late last week to look in­to three claims of pri­or chem­ic­al-arms use.

“The U.N. in­vest­ig­at­ive team, which is cur­rently in Syr­ia, is pre­pared” to in­vest­ig­ate the latest pos­sible chem­ic­al as­sault, “and that is con­sist­ent with its pur­pose and man­date,” Earn­est said. “For the U.N.’s ef­forts to be cred­ible, they must have im­me­di­ate ac­cess to wit­nesses and af­fected in­di­vidu­als, and have the abil­ity to ex­am­ine and col­lect phys­ic­al evid­ence without any in­ter­fer­ence or ma­nip­u­la­tion from the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment.

“If the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment has noth­ing to hide and is truly com­mit­ted to an im­par­tial and cred­ible in­vest­ig­a­tion of chem­ic­al weapons use in Syr­ia,” the spokes­man ad­ded, “it will fa­cil­it­ate the U.N. team’s im­me­di­ate and un­fettered ac­cess to this site.”

Sell­strom earli­er in the day ex­pressed his own in­terest in in­vest­ig­at­ing the fresh al­leg­a­tions of a ma­jor tox­ic gas strike, say­ing that he would lead the in­quiry in­to the pos­sible new at­tack if na­tions from around the globe re­ques­ted it, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­por­ted.

Re­ports of massive cas­u­al­ties from the in­cid­ent “sound sus­pi­cious,” and it ap­pears to be “something we need to look in­to,” Sell­strom told SVT tele­vi­sion on Wed­nes­day. “It will de­pend on wheth­er any U.N. mem­ber state goes to the sec­ret­ary gen­er­al and says we should look at this event. We are in place,” Re­u­ters quoted him as say­ing.

U.N. Sec­ret­ary Gen­er­al Ban Ki-moon is “aware of the re­ports,” his of­fice tweeted. “We are try­ing to find out more.”

Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar As­sad’s gov­ern­ment has re­jec­ted rebel as­ser­tions that its forces launched chem­ic­al rock­et strikes on the out­skirts of Dam­as­cus, Re­u­ters said sep­ar­ately. Re­por­ted death tolls from the al­leged as­sault con­flic­ted, but reached in­to the hun­dreds and pos­sibly totaled more than 1,000.

Brit­ish For­eign Sec­ret­ary Wil­li­am Hag­ue said his coun­try would refer the in­cid­ent to the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, and he urged the As­sad re­gime “to al­low im­me­di­ate ac­cess to the area for the U.N. team,” Re­u­ters re­por­ted. France, Ger­many, Tur­key and the 22-na­tion Ar­ab League each in­di­vidu­ally re­ques­ted that the United Na­tions ex­pand its in­vest­ig­a­tion to in­clude the latest claims.

Rus­sia also re­portedly called for a fair and pro­fes­sion­al in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the new al­leged at­tack. For­eign Min­istry Spokes­man Al­ex­an­der Lukashev­icha said the in­cid­ent’s tim­ing sug­gests it is a “pre-planned pro­voca­tion.”

Former U.N. arms in­vest­ig­at­or Rolf Ekeus told Re­u­ters that “it would be very pe­cu­li­ar if it was the gov­ern­ment to do this at the ex­act mo­ment the in­ter­na­tion­al in­spect­ors come in­to the coun­try.”

“At the least, it wouldn’t be very clev­er,” he ad­ded. The latest event would be sim­pler to as­sess than the past al­leged strikes, be­cause “it is easi­er to do sampling and test­ing, and also to look at the vic­tims, if there are sick people or even dead people (on the scene),” the wire ser­vice sep­ar­ately quoted him as say­ing. “It is easi­er to get to doc­tors and get to the place where the event happened.”

A former European Uni­on In­sti­tute chem­ic­al weapons ana­lyst said he was “skep­tic­al” of pri­or chem­ic­al at­tack re­ports emer­ging from Syr­ia, but “it is clear that something ter­rible has happened” in the latest in­cid­ent.

“The scenes could not have been stage-man­aged,” he wrote in a Wed­nes­day blog post. “However, it is ex­tremely puzz­ling that gov­ern­ment forces would launch a chem­ic­al at­tack pre­cisely at the mo­ment when U.N. in­spect­ors are fi­nally in the coun­try to in­vest­ig­ate some of the earli­er al­leg­a­tions.”

Earn­est, the White House spokes­man, said Wash­ing­ton ad­di­tion­ally has “called for ur­gent con­sulta­tions in the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil to dis­cuss these al­leg­a­tions and to call for the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment to provide im­me­di­ate ac­cess to the U.N. in­vest­ig­at­ive team.”

The United States, he said, was ur­ging “all Syr­i­an parties in­clud­ing the gov­ern­ment and op­pos­i­tion, to provide im­me­di­ate ac­cess to any and all sites of im­port­ance to the in­vest­ig­a­tion and to en­sure se­cur­ity for the U.N. in­vest­ig­at­ive team.”

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