Syria says agreement reached on UN chemical probe

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — Talks between the Syrian government and a U.N. delegation tasked with investigating chemical weapons allegations in the nation's civil war have "resulted in an agreement on ways of moving forward," Syrian state media said Saturday.

President Bashar Assad's government invited a U.N. team to visit Damascus earlier this month after requesting that the international organization investigate an alleged chemical attack in Khan al-Assal, a village in the north. The Syrian regime and the rebels fighting to topple it accuse each other of using chemical agents in the March 19 incident.

Assad's government refused to have a possible inquiry include other alleged chemical attack sites in the central city of Homs, Damascus and elsewhere.

Earlier this week Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom and U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane met with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and his deputy, Faisal Mekdad, in the Syrian capital.

A joint statement by the foreign ministry and the U.N. that appeared on Syria's official SANA news agency's website on Saturday said the meetings were "comprehensive and fruitful and resulted in an agreement on ways of moving forward."

It did not elaborate. The U.N. team couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Khan al-Assal, on the southwestern edge of the embattled city of Aleppo, was under government control in March. It was captured by the rebels on Monday after weeks of heavy fighting between government troops and opposition forces who took large swathes of territory in the north — including parts of Aleppo — in an offensive last summer.

Saturday's announcement on an agreement on a possible U.N. probe of the March attack that killed 31 people in Khan al-Assal coincided with government allegations that the rebels committed "a massacre" in the village, killing "a number of civilians and military personnel," according to a SANA report. It did not give a death toll. The report said "terrorists" were behind the recent killings in Khan al-Assal, a term the government uses for rebels.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 150 soldiers were killed on Monday and Tuesday, some after they had surrendered, during and after the rebel storming of Khan al-Assal.

The group, which relies on a network of activists on the ground inside Syria said at least 51 of the soldiers were shot dead after they were captured or had surrendered to rebels, the Observatory said Saturday. It said around 100 were killed when they tried to hold on to positions inside and around the village.

The Observatory's report could not be independently confirmed. Syria's official media does not release casualty figures for security forces and government soldiers.

In Aleppo, a rocket fired by government forces into a rebel-held district killed at least 18 people, including six children and four women, The Observatory said Saturday. The attack occurred a day earlier during government shelling of al-Qaida-linked rebel fighters in the Bab al-Nairab neighborhood of Aleppo. One of the rockets slammed into a residential area about 50 meters (yards) away from positions held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Observatory said. At least another 50 people were wounded.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in the 2-year-old conflict, according to the U.N.'s recent estimate.

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Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.

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