UN: New reports of chemical weapons use in Syria

Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — There are mounting reports of chemical weapons use as violence escalates in Syria, the U.N.'s top Mideast envoy said Wednesday.

In response to these reports, Robert Serry told the Security Council that the United Nations is again urging the Syrian government to allow chemical weapons experts into the country immediately to investigate the allegations.

The Syrian government asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack by rebels on March 19 on Khan al-Assal village in Aleppo, but insists that a probe be limited to that incident. Syrian soldiers were reportedly killed and injured in the incident, which the rebels blame on Syrian forces.

Ban is insisting on a broader investigation, including a December incident in Homs raised by Britain and France.

Serry gave no details on the new reports, or on who was responsible for the alleged attacks, but said the secretary-general remains "gravely concerned" about the allegations of chemical weapons use.

"Amid mounting reports on the use of chemcal weapons, we once again urge the government of Syria to allow the investigation to proceed without further delay," he said.

A senior U.N. diplomat said Ban has received new information about alleged chemical weapons incidents since the beginning of April. The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, refused to give any details.

Syria's U.N. Mission had no immediate comment.

Ban appointed Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom, a former U.N. chemical weapons inspector in Iraq, to head the inspection team in late March. Sellstrom has visited key capitals, and members of his team have reportedly visited neighboring countries to try to gather evidence from refugees and others.

Serry said the team of experts "has been doing what it can to gather and analyze available information," but Ban has stressed repeatedly that on-site investigations are essential if the U.N. is to determine whether chemical weapons have been used.

The confirmed use of chemical weapons could escalate the international response to the conflict, which has killed more than 70,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said the secretary-general is "deeply alarmed" at the increasing violence which has uprooted a quarter of the Syrian population and sent over 1.5 million into neighboring countries as refugees.

The U.N. is trying to ensure the delivery of life-saving help to millions in need, he said, but humanitarian workers must have access and "we need to think of better and more practical ways to deliver assistance."

Serry told council members the U.N. welcomes the U.S.-Russian initiative to bring the government and opposition to the negotiating table "and is fully devoted to helping the Syrians find a political solution."

"The weeks ahead will be critical and we urge everyone to cooperate," he said.

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