UN chemical weapons experts visit people affected
by the gas attack at a hospital.
US warns Assad; chemical attack 'undeniable'
Washington, August 27, 2013
The United States has put Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on notice that it believes he was responsible for using chemical weapons against civilians last week in what Secretary of State John Kerry called a "moral obscenity."
"President (Barack) Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people," Kerry said in the most forceful US reaction yet to the August 21 attack.
Speaking after UN chemical weapons experts came under sniper fire on their way to investigate the scene of the attack, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the use of chemical weapons was undeniable and "there is very little doubt in our mind that the Syrian regime is culpable."
Kerry said Obama was consulting with allies before he decides on how to respond. "What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world," Kerry told reporters.
"The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable."
Military chiefs from the US and its European and Middle Eastern allies met in Jordan for what could be a council of war, should they decide to punish Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons and blamed rebels for staging such attacks.
The Washington Post cited senior administration officials as saying Obama is weighing a military strike against Syria that would be of limited scope and duration, while keeping the US out of deeper involvement in that country's civil war.
Such an attack would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles - or, possibly, long-range bombers - striking military targets not directly related to Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, the newspaper reported.
It said such a move is dependent on three factors: completion of an intelligence report assessing the Syrian government's culpability in the chemical attack, consultation with allies and the US Congress and determination of a justification under international law.
US warships armed with cruise missiles are already positioned in the Mediterranean.
Hundreds of people died in Damascus suburbs in what appears to have been the worst chemical weapons attack since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fatally gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988.
UN investigators crossed the front line from the centre of the capital, which remains under Assad's control, to inspect the Mouadamiya suburb, one of at least four neighbourhoods hit by the poison gas before dawn last Wednesday.
The UN said one vehicle in its convoy was crippled by gunshots fired by "unidentified snipers." The team continued on after turning back for a replacement car.
Syrian state television blamed rebel "terrorists" for the shooting. The opposition blamed pro-Assad militiamen.
"I am with the team now," a doctor who uses the name Abu Karam told Reuters by telephone from Mouadamiya. "We are in the Rawda mosque and they are meeting with the wounded. Our medics and the inspectors are talking to the patients and taking samples from the victims now."
Wassim al-Ahmad, an opposition activist, said members of the Free Syrian Army umbrella rebel organisation and the opposition's Mouadamiya Local Council were accompanying the inspectors on their tour of the suburb.
Video filmed at the site showed inspectors in black and blue body armour and blue UN helmets walking through a street as curious onlookers came up to watch.
They shook hands with men who appeared to be rebels wearing camouflage vests, and were accompanied by doctors and residents. The group descended into the basement of a building where they were told injured survivors were being treated to protect them from more shelling. Another video showed an inspector interviewing a patient and taking notes.
ASSAD TOO LATE
Kerry said Assad's decision to finally allow access was too late to be credible. "That is not the behaviour of a government that has nothing to hide," Kerry said, adding that Assad's forces had also destroyed evidence by shelling the area.
"Our sense of basic humanity is offended not only by this cowardly crime, but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up," Kerry said.
He said the UN inspectors could at most confirm that chemical weapons were used, not who used them, but that it was Assad's government that has such weapons and the means of delivering them. He said Washington had additional information on the attack that it would make known soon.
In Israel, citizens have been queuing up for gas masks in case Assad responds to a Western attack by firing on Israel, as Iraq's Saddam did in 1991.
With tensions rising over Syria, British Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a holiday to lead a top-level security meeting. Obama, Cameron and French President Francois Hollande all spoke to each other and other allies in the past few days. Cameron also called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday.
Several Nato countries have issued statements pledging a response, although none has been specific about what is planned.
Assad denies the accusations that his forces used chemical weapons and said the US would be defeated if it intervened in his country.
"Would any state use chemicals or any other weapons of mass destruction in a place where its own forces are concentrated? That would go against elementary logic," he told the Russian newspaper Izvestia. "Failure awaits the United States as in all previous wars it has unleashed, starting with Vietnam and up to the present day."
Russia, Assad's main arms supplier and diplomatic defender in the UN Security Council, says rebels may have been behind the chemical attack. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said any intervention in Syria without a Security Council resolution would be a grave violation of international law. - Reuters