UNITED NATIONS/MOSCOW: U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said Monday that investigators have been gathering and analyzing available information on alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria, but access to the war-torn country is needed for a “credible and comprehensive inquiry.”
The issue of possible chemical attacks by President Bashar Assad’s government has become a crucial factor that could lead to the United States and other Western powers stepping up their involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Ban created a U.N. inspection mission, led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, in mid-March to investigate several claims of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
But Syria has blocked unconditional and unfettered access by the U.N. mission, which has an advance team in Cyprus ready to deploy to Syria within 24 to 48 hours, and it is unlikely it will gain that type of access any time soon.
“On-site activities are essential if the United Nations is to be able to establish the facts and clear all the doubts surrounding this issue,” Ban told reporters before meeting with Sellstrom at the United Nations in New York.
“A credible and comprehensible inquiry requires full access to the site where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used,” Ban said. “I again urge Syrian authorities to allow the investigation to proceed without delay and without conditions.”
Ban said that in the meantime, the investigators were gathering and analyzing available information on the alleged attacks, which included possible visits to countries that said they had evidence of chemical weapons use.
A Western diplomat said British officials had shown Sellstrom evidence on which London based its assertion that there was “limited but growing” evidence of chemical weapons use by Syrian authorities.
But Sellstrom found the evidence inconclusive, said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. Syria denies using chemical weapons.
Assertions of chemical weapon use in Syria by Western and Israeli officials citing photos, sporadic shelling and traces of toxins do not meet the standard of proof needed for U.N. investigators, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which works on U.N. inquiries.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov warned the West against using a search for chemical weapons in Syria as an excuse for ousting Assad along the lines of the notorious hunt for deadly arms in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Lavrov questioned why Ban was calling for the fact-finding mission by citing unproven claims of the regime’s use of chemical weapons in December.
“This demand by the secretary-general with reference to a forgotten episode reminds us a great deal of attempts in Syria to introduce a practice analogous to that which existed in Iraq, when they were looking for weapons of mass destruction there,” Lavrov said.
Russia was strongly opposed to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled Hussein and has bitterly resisted foreign intervention in its close Middle East ally Syria.
Lavrov – speaking during a joint press appearance with African Union Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – accused some governments and other players of using the threat of chemical warfare as a pretext for insisting on a foreign invasion of Syria.
“There are governments and outside players that believe that all means are appropriate to overthrow the Syrian regime,” said Lavrov, apparently referring to Western and anti-Assad Arab governments.
“But the subject of using weapons of mass destruction is too serious – it should not be joked around with.”
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was sparked by a search for weapons of mass destruction purportedly held by Hussein’s regime that were never found.