'Chemical attack' in Syria: As Damascus buries its dead, the world demands answers

The UN inspectors’ chances of finding any evidence of chemical weapons use are  shortening by the day as they remain stuck in a Damascus hotel

UN inspections which could establish the truth behind accusations that 1,300 people were massacred using chemical weapons in Syria have been delayed by realpolitik and bureaucracy, it has been claimed.

The team of 20 specialists is stuck at the Four Seasons Hotel in the Syrian capital, just 12 miles from the site of one of the attacks, waiting for permission to gain access.

A formal request to the Syrian government to allow UN inspectors to investigate the latest alleged gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus was sent tonight, according to a statement from the office of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. 

The UN was meeting again tonight, but a separate statement it was due to release on the deaths has been diluted at the insistence of China and Russia, allies of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The US, Britain, France and Germany have demanded that the inspectors should be immediately allowed to go to the area affected, Ghouta, east of Damascus. The leader of the UN’s team of investigators, Ake Sellström, said: “It looks like something that should be looked into… We are in a place to do so.”

But the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, insisted in New York that the “security situation does not permit” visits to the area for the time being. He also stressed that doing so would need the explicit consent of the regime and this might take time as it would require a change to the mandate under which the inspectors were allowed into Syria.

The team arrived on Sunday after months of negotiations to investigate three occasions when chemical agents are alleged to have been used. They were at the village of Khan al-Assal, north of Aleppo; Ataybeh near Damascus; and the Homs region. Under their terms of operation, the inspectors will try to ascertain whether chemical weapons had been used, but will not apportion blame.

When the team arrived, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, declared: “I assure you, on behalf of the Syrian Arab Republic, that we will fully co-operate with this team and provide it will all information we have and all facilities to reach a rational conclusion. Our basic target is for this team to find facts on ground.”

The investigators were expected to be in the field within 24 hours of arrival in Syria. But there were initial delays due to security concerns before the reports of the mass deaths surfaced on Wednesday. Today, residents of Khan al-Assal said they would not permit inspectors to enter their area until Ghouta was investigated.

Officials in Damascus have continued to strongly deny that the regime was responsible for the use of a weapon of mass destruction, claiming that video footage of dead and dying men, women and children was “terrorist propaganda”. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said discussions had been held for the UN team to be taken to Ghouta, but he could not say when this would take place as there were “logistical and security issues”.

Specialists in chemical agents pointed out that delays in acquiring samples would mean that meaningful evidence would dissipate. Philippe Vincent, who has carried out research into the use of WMDs in conflicts, said: “Extremely valuable time is being lost here. Traces of Sarin, if that was allegedly used, do not last for long. If there is an active cover-up then munitions used to carry out the assault can be removed. The video footage was quite graphic and indicated symptoms of possible poisoning, but it was just footage at the end of the day; you need to have research on the ground.”

The Russian government stated that it wanted the UN and the regime to come to an agreement as soon as possible for the inspections to take place. However the Kremlin claimed that opponents of President Assad may have carried out the killing to discredit him. A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said the Russian government had “information” that rockets carrying toxic chemicals could have been fired from a rebel-held suburb.

“This all smacks of an attempt, at any cost, to establish grounds for forwarding the demands of the enemies of the regime to the Security Council,” he said, pointing to the timing of “this crime near Damascus” and the arrival of the UN team as evidence of “premeditated provocation”.

The French government declared that military force may be the response by the international community if it is proved that the Assad regime had carried out a chemical attack. But Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also ruled out putting any troops on the ground in Syria and failed to explain what form this force would take.

France, along with Britain, forced the lifting of the EU arms sanctions on Syria to enable weapons to be sent to the rebels. However, in the ensuing four months neither country has supplied weapons, sending humanitarian and “civic assistance” aid instead.

World reaction: Shock and condemnation

UN

“The Secretary-General believes that the incidents reported yesterday need to  be investigated without delay.  A formal request is being  sent by the United Nations  to the government of Syria in this regard. He expects to receive a positive response without delay.”

Statement from the office of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

France

“We need a reaction by the international community… a reaction of force.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius

China

“China’s position is very clear. It does not matter what side in Syria uses chemical weapons, China resolutely opposes it.”

Foreign Ministry statement

Turkey

“It is clear that chemical weapons were used. It is clear that in Syria, only the Assad administration is in possession of this weapon. The whole world knows who has what amount of weapons. This is clear as day.”

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag

Germany

“These accusations are so serious, so monstrous that  it is necessary to enable a  real examination before  talking or speculating  about consequences.”

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle

Israel

“The reported use of chemical weapons against… civilians is terribly disturbing. If verified, it will be a horrible addition to the roster of tragic crimes committed by the Syrian regime against the people of Syria.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Iran

“If the use of chemical weapons is true, it has definitely been carried out by terrorist… groups, because they have proved in action that they refrain from no crime.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

US

“The images that we have seen are nothing short of horrifying.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest

Russia

“The group of observers are already in place. [Their]… position was agreed upon in the UN Security Council. How can we object? We… have an interest in the investigation into what happened…” 

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich

Britain

“We believe a political solution is the best way to end the bloodshed. However, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have said… many times we cannot rule out any option… that might save innocent lives in Syria.”

Foreign Office spokesman

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
News
news

Watch this commuter make a mad 320-metre, 75-step dash to work
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK edition of wedding show forced to recast after wave of drop-outs
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Top conservatoire offers ‘groundbreaking’ arts degree

Sport
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

March On Cancer™ - Local Marketing and Promotions Volunteer

This is an unpaid voluntary role.: Cancer Research UK: We need motivational vo...

Teaching Assistants

£50 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing ...

Supply Teachers needed in Stowmarket

£1034496 - £1516224 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: The Job:Randstad ...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week