Middle East

UN chemical inspection unit stays put after Syria rejects terms

A man, wounded in what the government said was a chemical weapons attack, is treated at a hospital in the Syrian city of Aleppo March 19, 2013. (REUTERS/George Ourfalian)

BEIRUT: With a U.N. chemical weapons inspection team ready to mobilize to Syria from Cyprus Tuesday, Syria has flatly rejected allowing the team into the country, the foreign ministry has said.

The Syrian government initially asked for an investigation into its allegation that the opposition had used chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal on March 19. The rebels dispute the claim, and say that the government used the munitions.

The investigations unit was proposed by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon in response, but said that all claims about chemical weapons use need to be investigated.

Ban announced Monday that a U.N. inspection team was in Cyprus and ready to enter Syria Tuesday. But later that evening Syrian state news agency quoted a foreign ministry official as saying, “Syria cannot accept such maneuvers on the part of the U.N. secretariat general, bearing in mind the negative role that it played in Iraq and which cleared the way to the American invasion" of that country in 2003.

The foreign ministry added that it "regretted" that Ban had "given in to pressure from states known for their support of the bloodshed" in Syria, he said, referring to supporters of the two-year-old revolt in the country.

Also late Monday, Al-Qaeda in Iraq announced that it has merged with Syria’s extremist rebel group, the Nusra Front.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, said that the two groups will operate under the same banner, according to the U.S. SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist websites.

The U.S. in December blacklisted Nusra Front as an extremist group, and the administration of President Barack Obama and others had long been claiming that Al-Qaeda in Iraq was supplying Nusra Front with funds, arms and fighters.

This latest announcement is likely to further stoke fears among supporters of the Syrian opposition, of which the Nusra Front has been playing an increasingly strategic fighting role.

Experts believe the foreign contingent represents a small minority of the total number of rebels. But the government of President Bashar Assad has frequently blamed foreign insurgents for stoking and leading the now 2-year-old civil war, which has thus far claimed at least 70,000 lives according to U.N. figures.

Baghdadi said the new coalition of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Nusra Front will be known as the “Islamic State in Iraq and Sham,” in reference to greater Syria.

Meanwhile, a Salafist leader in Jordan said that 500 of its supporters were fighting against the Syrian Army across the border.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that he is to meet members of the Syrian opposition in London later this week to discuss the state of the opposition movement.

Speaking at Tel Aviv airport, he said, "Yes, I will be meeting with the Syrian opposition in London and yes, we will be discussing various means of having an impact on President Assad's calculations about where the battlefield is going," according to Reuters.

Across Syria Tuesday, government airstrikes continued to pound the country, from the suburbs of Damascus, Lattakia in the west, Deraa in the south and central Homs and Hama, according to activists.

In Deraa, three members of the same family were killed due to heavy shelling there, the Local Coordination Committee network reported: a 25-year-old, a 19-year-old and a two months old baby.

The LCC also reported fierce clashes between regime and rebel troops in Aleppo and Raqqa, both of which are largely rebel-held cities.

In Deir Ezzor and Idlib, fierce fighting was reported by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a Britain-based activist group.

Overnight Monday, shelling at the Yarmouk Palestinian camp of Damascus led to a huge fire at the site. Also, in Daraya, outside of the capital, the decapitated body of a 9-year-old girl was found near a checkpoint, the LCC said.

The Syrian government Tuesday wrote a letter of complaint to the U.N. over a car bomb in central Damascus a day earlier which killed 15 people.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack but the regime blamed “terrorists,” for the explosion, which caused at least 53 injuries.

As of early afternoon Tuesday, at least 15 people had been killed across the country, including eight civilians and seven rebels, the Observatory said.





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