DAMASCUS: Syria’s foreign minister said Tuesday his country would defend itself using “all means available” in case of a U.S. strike, denying categorically his government was behind an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus and challenging Washington to present proof backing up its accusations.
Walid al-Moallem also said a second trip by United Nations experts to the site of last week’s purported chemical weapons attack had been delayed because of disputes between rebel groups.
The U.N. also announced the team of experts’ visit to the alleged site had been delayed until Wednesday, citing security concerns.
Moallem spoke at a news conference in Damascus, a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated there was “undeniable” evidence of a large-scale chemical attack likely launched by the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Kerry used particularly tough language to refer to the alleged poison gas attack in a Damascus suburb, saying that an “international norm cannot be violated without consequences.”
Obama has yet to say how he will respond, but appeared to be moving ahead even as the U.N. team already on the ground in Syria collected evidence from the attack.
Moallem called the U.S. accusations that the Syrian regime likely used chemical weapons “categorically false.”
“I challenge those who accuse our forces of using these weapons to come forward with the evidence,” he said. Syria would fight back in the event of a U.S. strike, he added.
“We have the means to defend ourselves and we will surprise everyone,” he told reporters at a news conference in Damascus. “We will defend ourselves using all means available. I don’t want to say more than that.”
He declined to elaborate or say to what specific means he was referring.
He also said rebels in the capital’s suburbs known as eastern Ghouta hadpostponed the U.N. team’s visit by one day because gunmen could not reach agreement about guaranteeing their safety. He did not elaborate.
The U.N. team traveled Monday to the western Damascus suburb Moadamieh, one of the areas affected by purported chemical attack, where they collected samples and testimony after a treacherous journey through government and rebel-held territory. Their convoy was hit by snipers but members of the team were unharmed.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had instructed U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane in Damascus “to register a strong complaint” with both the Syrian government and opposition representatives for the convoy attack.
Ban Tuesday urged all sides in the conflict to give the team safe passage and access.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq earlier said the team had made plans to go out again Tuesday to do more sampling, and activists said the team was expected in the eastern suburbs of Zamalka and Ain Tarma.
However, the U.N. later issued a statement saying the inspectors had postponed their next site visit until Wednesday. “Following yesterday’s attack on the U.N. convoy, a comprehensive assessment determined that the visit should be postponed by one day in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team. Considering the complexities of the site, confirmation of access has not been obtained but is expected later today.”