Syrian opposition vows to ensure safety of UN inspectors

UN official due in Syria to push for access to alleged chemical attack site.

Syiran gas mask 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh )
Syiran gas mask 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh )
Syria's opposition said it would ensure the safety of UN chemical weapons inspectors in areas of Syria it controls and said it was critical that they reached the site of an alleged gas attack near Damascus within 48 hours.
"We will ensure the safety of the UN team ... It is critical that those inspectors get there within 48 hours," Khaled Saleh, spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, told a news conference in Istanbul.
Saleh's comments were an apparent rebuttal of suggestions from Moscow earlier that the opposition was preventing an objective investigation into allegations that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack.
"Much needed signals from the opposition, including its readiness to guarantee the safety and effective work of UN experts on territory controlled by militants, unfortunately are not forthcoming," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"It is directly preventing an objective investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria."
Syrian activists say they are smuggling out body tissue samples from victims of the attack outside Damascus and are trying to get them to a team of UN inspectors staying in a hotel a few miles away. Saleh said the opposition would also try to get the samples out of Syria for tests.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday he intends to conduct a "thorough, impartial and prompt investigation" into the latest alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, an issue his top disarmament official will raise in Damascus shortly.
A UN statement said UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane was due to arrive in the Syrian capital on Saturday to push for access to the reported attack site for UN inspectors, who were already in Syria to investigate previous chemical attack claims.
"It is (Ban's) intention to conduct a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation on the reports of the alleged use of chemical weapons during these attacks," UN spokesman Eduardo del Buey said in the statement.
"The secretary-general urges the Syrian authorities to respond positively and promptly to his request without delay, taking into account in particular that the Syrian Government has publicly expressed its own concerns regarding these events," he said.
While much remains sketchy about the apparent gassing, Western experts believe rockets or missiles were used to disperse a nerve agent in the worst chemical attack in a quarter of a century.
US and allied intelligence agencies have made a preliminary assessment that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons to attack an area near Damascus this week and that the act likely had high-level approval from Assad's government, according to US and European security sources.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, cautioned that the assessment is preliminary and, at this stage, they are still seeking conclusive proof, which could take days, weeks or longer to gather.
Turkey meanwhile, urged the UN Security Council on Friday to take "concrete action" following reports of the deadly attack.
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"There is nothing left to say now regarding the events that are taking place in Syria, it is now time for actual concrete action," Turkish President Abdullah Gul told reporters in Istanbul on Friday.
"The price of playing down the events and procrastinating through diplomatic manoeuvrings and trickery in the UN Security Council will be very high."
In a live television interview late on Thursday, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said it was "very obvious" chemical weapons had been used in that attack.
"Some are still debating this, 'was it like this, was it like that?' What do you mean 'was it like this?' There are no bullets, no blood traces, no gunpowder, there is nothing. It is very obvious and clear, everything is evident," Erdogan said.
Turkey, once an ally of Assad but now one of his fiercest critics, has long been concerned about the possible use of chemical weapons across its southern border and has repeatedly criticized the UN Security Council for inaction.
Russia on Friday rejected international calls for the use of force on the Syrian regime in light of accusations that the Damascus government was responsible for the reported gas attacks, AFP reported.
France said on Thursday that the international community would need to respond with force if allegations that Syrian government forces had carried out a mass chemical attack on civilians proved to be true.
Moscow "called on the Syrian government to cooperate with the UN chemical experts," AFP cited Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying in a statements.
Lavrov also urged opposition force to permit access to UN inspectors already in Syria to the areas hit by the latest alleged gas attack.
The United Nations said the number of Syrian children forced to flee their devastated homeland reached 1 million on Friday, half of all the refugees driven abroad by a conflict that shows no sign of ending.
The UN stepped up demands on Syria for access to rebel-held Damascus suburbs hit by the apparent poison gas attack and Assad's opponents said they had sent tissue samples with couriers to try to get them to a UN inspection team in the country.
President Barack Obama stressed on Friday that he would not rush to embroil Americans in a costly new war.
Obama's wary response, which underscored a deep reluctance by Washington to intervene in Syria's 2-1/2-year-old civil war, came as senior US officials weighed choices ranging from increased diplomatic pressure to the use of force, including possible air strikes on Assad's forces, administration sources said.