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Middle East

Syria crisis: President Assad denies his government carried out deadly chemical attack in US TV interview

Mr Assad also paid tribute to Russia for blocking resolutions targeting the regime in the UN Security Council

President Bashir al-Assad of Syria denied flatly that his government was behind the 21 August Sarin gas attacks on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in an interview broadcast by the Fox News Channel in the United States.

Repudiating the findings of a UN inspectors report submitted on Monday and held up by western capitals as finally removing all doubt of the culpability of his regime, Mr Assad insisted they could not be trusted. “The whole story doesn’t even hold together it’s not realistic,” he said in the interview that was taped in his palace in Damascus on Tuesday. He added: “In one word we didn’t use any chemical weapons in Ghouta.”

He also asserted that his government was not principally to blame for the civilian deaths in the now 30-month civil war in his country. “The majority of innocent civilians have been killed by the terrorist not by the government,” he said. By most recent estimates more than 100,000 people have died in the war, civilians and combatants.

In addition to rejecting the UN report Mr Assad paid tribute to Russia for blocking resolutions targeting the regime in the UN Security Council. “The Russian role politically was very efficient… they protected Syria politically,” he said. Yet the president, who spoke in fluent English, seemed eager to reassure the international community that he will abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention which Syria joined last week

“When you join an agreement you have a mechanism and you have to obey the mechanism,” he said. “We didn’t say we are joining partially... we joined fully.”

Under the terms of the agreement reached by Russia and the United States last week requiring Syria to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal, Mr Assad is expected first to submit a full accounting of it to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague by this Saturday. He said he expected the task of removing his weapons would require a year or “maybe a little more or maybe a little bit less”.

Pressed on the contents of the UN report, Mr Assad notably disputed details of the trajectories taken by two Sarin-bearing rockets which analysts and western governments says shows they were fired from regime-controlled areas. He said that Russian satellite intelligence shows that analysis to be false. The Russians “say they have information through their satellites that the rockets were launched from another area,” he contended.