Syria pledges no arbitrary attacks, U.S. takes with 'grain of salt'

By Michelle Nichols
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By Michelle Nichols UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Syria's pledge not to use indiscriminate weapons must be taken with "a grain of salt," the United States said on Thursday, noting there were nearly 1,500 barrel bomb attacks in October even though the country's government denies using them. Syria sent a statement to United Nations mediator Staffan de Mistura on Monday stressing that "the Syrian Arab Army will never use arbitrary weapons in its continued efforts to combat terrorism and restore stability and security to Syria." De Mistura, Western powers and Syrian rebels accuse President Bashar al-Assad's government of dropping barrel bombs, steel drums of shrapnel and explosives, from helicopters on civilian neighborhoods. They say the government is the only party to the nearly five-year civil war that uses helicopters. "We have to take public pledges with a grain of salt," said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, when asked about the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement. She said there were nearly 1,500 barrel bomb attacks in October. "It is very hard to take Syrian pledges at their face, not least because last I checked President Assad continues to deny that his regime even uses barrel bombs despite the extensive documentation," she told reporters. The Syrian statement said the issue of the use of arbitrary weapons had been raised during talks with Russia. It said any accusations that Syria used such weapons were "baseless." A senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said de Mistura appeared excited about the Syrian commitment when he briefed the Security Council on Tuesday ahead of a new round of ministerial talks in Vienna on Saturday aimed at ending the conflict. "We have to be pretty skeptical," the diplomat said of the statement. Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow was concerned about the indiscriminate use of force. "Over the years we have been talking to the Syrians trying to persuade them to show maximum restraint to avoid if possible civilian casualties. The barrel bombs issue is also something we have been discussing with them," he said on Oct. 30. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the U.N. Security Council in his latest monthly report on Syria, seen by Reuters on Thursday, that he expects the Syrian commitment not to use arbitrary weapons "to be translated into action." The United Nations said more than 250,000 have been killed in Syria, while more than four million people have fled the country. (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by David Gregorio)