DAMASCUS, Aug 26 – UN experts are to start investigating a suspected Syrian chemical attack on Monday as a sceptical Washington weighing military action and coordinating with allies said Syria’s acceptance of the probe came too late.
In an escalation of a showdown over the alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus last week, the United States and its Western allies pointed the finger of blame at President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident,” based on the reported number of victims and their symptoms, as well as US and other foreign intelligence, one official in Washington told AFP.
French President Francois Hollande told his US counterpart Barack Obama that “everything was consistent” with the conclusion that Damascus was behind the attack.
“The two presidents agreed to stay in close contact to arrive at a joint response to this unprecedented aggression,” the French leader’s office said.
And British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned any evidence of a chemical attack may have been destroyed. “The fact is that much of the evidence could have been destroyed by that artillery bombardment,” he said.
However, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault implied that a punitive strike on Syria was not imminent, in an interview with France 2 television.
“Once this (UN) investigation has ended, we await a firm decision, a clear decision, from the international community. The (UN) Security Council will meet,” he said.
A White House official also shot down a report in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper claiming that London and Washington planned to join forces and launch military action against Syria “within days”.
“The president has not made a decision to undertake military action,” the official said.
Syria’s opposition says more than 1,300 people died when regime forces unleashed chemical weapons against rebel-held towns east and southwest of Damascus Wednesday, while Doctors Without Borders said 355 people had died of “neurotoxic” symptoms.
Damascus has strongly denied it carried out such an attack, instead blaming the rebels.
With the drums of a wider war beating, Syria’s ally Moscow bluntly warned the West that military action against Assad’s regime would be a “tragic mistake”.
Syria’s foreign ministry said that visiting UN disarmament envoy Angela Kane on Sunday struck the accord with the government for a probe.
The United Nations said the investigation would begin as early as Monday, stressing that the rebels and government were responsible for the safety of the UN inspectors on the ground and that a local ceasefire had been agreed.
UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said there was no time to waste.
“Every hour counts. We cannot afford any more delays,” Ban told reporters in Seoul Monday, wrapping up a five-day visit to his homeland.
“The world is watching Syria,” Ban said, stressing once again that the UN experts must be allowed “unfettered access” to the site and to work “unimpeded”.
“We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity,” said Ban.
US officials said Obama, who held crisis talks Saturday with top security aides, would make an “informed decision” about how to respond to an “indiscriminate” chemical weapons attack.