PARIS/MOSCOW: French President Francois Hollande Tuesday stopped short of issuing a strong ultimatum on Syria’s alleged recent use of chemical weapons, indicating the regime of President Bashar Assad should expect further sanctions and verbal condemnation should the accusations prove to be true.
Hollande made the comments after a meeting in Paris with Ahmad Jarba, the head of Syria’s opposition-in-exile National Coalition, one day after activists in Syria accused the regime of using chemical weapons in the province of Hama.
The meeting between Hollande and Jarba also came hours after Russian officials indicated their country would use its veto in the U.N. Security Council to block France’s draft resolution to refer the Assad regime to the International Criminal Court.
“We’ve denounced the use of chemical weapons, and an agreement [on the removal of Syria’s chemical stockpiles] had been reached,” Hollande said.
“If traces of it are spotted again, we will use all the legal means to once again condemn the regime, and press on with the sanctions.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week that there were “indications” that the regime had recently used chemical weapons, particularly chlorine gas, in 14 instances, even though it has been handing over its chemical stockpiles to a joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Syrian opposition activists said forces loyal to Assad had dropped a chlorine bomb on a rebel-held village, killing a teenager, the sixth alleged poison gas attack there in two months.
The village of Kafr Zeita, Hama, has been the epicenter of what activists and medics say is a chemicals campaign in which chlorine gas canisters are dropped out of helicopters.Damascus denies that forces loyal to Assad have used chlorine or other more poisonous gases and blames all chemical attacks on rebel forces.
Assad agreed with the U.S. and Russia to dispose of his chemical weapons after hundreds of people were killed in the sarin gas attack on the outskirts of the capital last August.
Activists from Kafr Zeita said on Facebook that Abdullah Qadour al-Hamawi, a disabled 14-year-old, was killed in the latest attack Monday.
They posted video footage of men and children being treated in a field hospital. Many were lying down and one man appeared unresponsive. Reuters could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage.
Chlorine is thousands of times less lethal than sarin but is still illegal under a chemical weapons convention that Syria signed and its use would breach the terms of the deal with Washington and Moscow, itself now weeks behind schedule with 7.5 percent of Assad’s chemical arsenal still inside Syria.
Syria did not declare chlorine as part of its stockpile, further complicating the operation to rid Assad of chemical weapons.
As for referring Syria to the ICC, Russia will veto France’s draft resolution if it comes to a vote, Interfax news agency quoted a Russian official as saying.
Russia had already voiced opposition to a referral, but Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov’s remarks were the clearest warning yet of a veto.
“The draft that has been submitted to the U.N. Security Council is unacceptable to us, and we will not support it,” Gatilov was quoted as saying. “If it is put to a vote, we will veto it.”
Speaking after the meeting with Hollande, Jarba repeated his group’s call for “weapons that can make a difference so that we can stop this rain of explosive devices that continues to massacre and kill the innocent in all the towns, in all the Syrian villages.”
France has also agreed to open an embassy in Paris under the control of the opposition, Hollande said, according to a coalition statement.
In Syria, regime troops and paramilitary allies made gains against rebels in the Sheikh Najjar districts on the outskirts of the city of Aleppo, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group of activists.
At least six civilians were killed in a mortar bomb strike on the regime-held neighborhood of Midan in Aleppo while helicopters dropped 30 crude “barrel bombs” on rural parts of the province, it said. In the village of Turkman Bareh, a militant from the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS detonated a car bomb and killed at least one rebel, while wounding a number of people.