GENEVA/BEIRUT: U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon Friday accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of crimes against humanity ahead of an “overwhelming” U.N. report he said confirmed chemical weapons were used in Syria.
Ban’s explosive comments came as Washington and Moscow held their second day of crucial talks on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Though he did not blame the regime directly for poisongas use, Ban said U.N. experts would confirm in the report to be released next week that chemical weapons were used in an attack that killed hundreds.
Assad has vowed to relinquish his chemical arms, after the alleged attack prompted threats of military strikes.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov were holding talks in Geneva Friday to hammer out the details of a Russian plan that emerged this week.
The last-minute Russian initiative caused U.S. President Barack Obama to back away from planned military strikes in response to the attack, which Washington blames on the regime and says killed about 1,400 people.
Washington has warned the regime that further steps will be needed before military action would be off the table.
Obama said he hoped talks on the plan were successful, but said he would insist any deal was “verifiable and enforceable,”
“I shared with the emir my hope that the negotiations that are currently taking place between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov in Geneva bear fruit,” Obama said after meeting in the White House with Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah
“But I repeated what I’ve said publicly, which is any agreement needs to be verifiable and enforceable.”
At the United Nations, Ban lashed out at Assad and said inspectors would publish an “overwhelming report” that chemical weapons were used.
He said the Syrian leader had “carried out many crimes against humanity” and insisted there had to be “accountability” once Syria’s civil war was over.
In Geneva, Russian and U.S. officials said they hoped the chemical weapons talks would open the door to wider efforts to end Syria’s conflict, which has claimed more than 110,000 lives since March 2011.
Kerry said he would meet Lavrov again later this month – probably around Sept. 28 – to try to set a date for a long-delayed peace conference.
He said Washington and Moscow were “working hard to find common ground” to get peace talks going in Geneva that would bring together Assad’s regime and the opposition.
Much of the way forward “will obviously depend on the capacity to have success here in the next day, hours, days, on the subject of the chemical weapons,” Kerry told reporters after meeting with Lavrov and the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.
Lavrov said he also hoped a “basically abandoned” peace plan first agreed in Geneva in June last year would be revived.
“We agreed to meet in New York in the margins of the [U.N.] General Assembly and see where we are, and what the Syrian parties think about it and do about it,” Lavrov said.
The French presidency said Kerry, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague would hold further talks on Syria in Paris Monday.
Assad confirmed for the first time Thursday that Syria planned to relinquish its chemical weapons, and Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the international community to take him seriously.
“This confirms the serious intentions of our partners to go along this path,” Putin said at a security summit in Kyrgyzstan.
Syria Thursday filed documents at the United Nations seeking to join the international convention banning chemical weapons and said it now considers itself a full member.
A U.N. spokesman said Friday the organization had asked Syria for more information about its application, but he declined to say what was missing from the documents filed.
France – Washington’s main backer on military strikes – also said Friday that Syria had not yet not done enough, calling for a binding Security Council resolution that would authorize force if Assad does not give up his arsenal.
“The Syrian regime’s announcements are certainly very useful but also certainly insufficient,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said.
Fueling concerns about Assad’s sincerity, reports emerged Friday that a secret Syrian military unit was scattering the chemical weapons stockpile around the country.
Russia has not revealed many details of its plan, but Russian media report that it calls for a four-step process for the weapons handover.
Reports say the plan calls for Damascus to join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, declare the locations of its chemical arms, allow OPCW inspectors access and finally arrange for destruction of the arsenal.
A spokesman for the Hague-based OPCW said it would meet next week to examine Syria’s request.
Syria’s opposition National Coalition said it was “deeply skeptical” of the government’s move and urged a tough U.N. resolution to enforce the measure.
“It is vital the threat of force stays on the table. For a [Security Council] resolution to be anything other than a get-out-of-jail-free card for the regime, it must be enforceable under Chapter 7,” allowing military action, it said in a statement.
The French presidency said meanwhile that France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan had agreed to give more help to the Syrian opposition in its battle against Assad.
After a meeting in Paris, French President Francois Hollande and foreign ministers from the three countries “agreed on the need to strengthen international support for the democratic opposition to allow it to face attacks by the regime,” Hollande’s office said in a statement.