Middle East

Renewed chemical weapons claims mount against Syrian regime

A woman affected by what activists say was a gas attack on the town of Telminnes breathes through an oxygen mask at Bab al-Hawa hospital, where she was transferred to, close to the Turkish border April 21, 2014. (REUTERS/Amer Alfaj)

BEIRUT: Anti-regime activists accused the Syrian government Tuesday of again using chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, days after the U.S. and France made claims of similar recent attacks.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights cited reports by activists who accused regime troops of using “poison gas” in a bombardment of the Damascus suburb of Daraya.

Shortly after the announcement Monday that a presidential election would be held in June, the United States said Assad’s regime had launched a chemical attack on an opposition village earlier this month.

“We have indications of the use of a toxic industrial chemical, probably chlorine, in Syria this month, in the opposition-dominated village of Kafr Zita,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, adding: “We are examining allegations that the government was responsible.”

Washington called for an investigation. The latest allegation comes as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and other experts work to remove the Assad regime’s chemical stockpiles.

French President Francois Hollande said Sunday that his country had “information” but no proof that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime was using chemical weapons.

Syria has handed over 86.5 percent of its chemical weapons, the global chemical watchdog said Tuesday.

The latest update comes five days before a self-imposed cut-off of April 27, by which Damascus aimed to have its stockpile removed from Syrian soil, ahead of a June 30 deadline for its destruction.

The Syrian authorities Tuesday began accepting candidacies for June’s presidential election, a move that has been sharply criticized by the opposition and its allies.

Pro-regime media have speculated that several candidates might end up running in an election expected to be won handily by Assad.

Each candidate must be endorsed by 35 MPs from Syria’s 250-member legislature.

Holding an election in Syria while civil war rages would only obstruct international efforts to resolve the conflict, the head of the Arab League said.

“This step could suspend the desired efforts of maturing negotiations for a political solution to the Syrian crisis,” Nabil Elaraby, the secretary-general of the Cairo-based League, said in a statement.

Western and Gulf Arab countries that back rebels fighting to topple Assad have criticized the decision to hold elections, calling it a “parody of democracy” that would wreck efforts to negotiate a peace settlement.

U.N. and Arab League-backed talks in Geneva collapsed in February with both sides far from agreement on any issue including the fate of Assad, whose family has ruled for more than four decades.

“Practically, fair, democratic and credible elections could not take place in the middle of the humanitarian tragedy that the children of the Syrian people are living ... and with over 6 million homeless Syrians,” Elaraby said.

Although Assad has not yet announced whether he will run for office again, preparations for his candidacy have already begun in state-controlled parts of the capital.

The opposition, which insists Assad should step down and play no role in Syria’s future, rejected the election as a “farce.”

“The Assad regime’s announcement today that a ‘presidential election’ would be held in June should be treated as a farce,” said the office of opposition National Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba. “With vast parts of Syria completely destroyed by Assad’s air force, army and militias over the last three years, and with a third of Syria’s population displaced internally or in refugee camps in the region, there is no electorate in Syria in a condition to exercise its right to vote.”

Also Tuesday, the Observatory said regime troops and their paramilitary allies had regained “total” control over the Homs neighborhood of Jub Jandali, after rebels Saturday began a counterattack against the government’s offensive on the last rebel-held districts of the city.

The push-back saw rebels occupy several buildings in Jub Jandali and reportedly seize provisions stored in the area, to help them withstand the blockade on the Old City of Homs.

In the Damascus suburb of Mliha, 11 airstrikes were reported, while fighting also raged and killed an undetermined of government troops and rebels.

Helicopters dropped barrel bombs on Sheikh Said and Masaken Hanano neighborhoods of Aleppo, as well as the Aleppo province towns of Hreitan and Anadan, where an undetermined number of people were killed.

The Red Cross said it was “appalled” by escalating violence in Aleppo and was awaiting government permission to deliver aid to the pre-war commercial hub.

In a statement, the Geneva-based organization did not assign any blame for mounting casualties in Aleppo, but it urged all parties to observe international law.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was “appalled by a sharp escalation of violence in the northern city of Aleppo where parties have in recent days carried out indiscriminate attacks against civilians.”

Boris Michel, the head of ICRC’s delegation in Syria, said the violence was “unacceptable” and had led to hundreds of civilian casualties.

In recent weeks, the Syrian government has markedly stepped up its campaign of aerial bombardment against the rebel-held parts of the eastern city of Aleppo.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 23, 2014, on page 1.




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