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US threatens Syria over 'obscene' chemical strike

The US cancelled a meeting with Russia on the Syrian conflicted that was due to take place this week.
Aug 27th 2013, 7:22 AM 5,218 134

WASHINGTON HAS WARNED Syria it would face action over the “moral obscenity” of a gruesome chemical weapons attack, as UN inspectors braved sniper fire to gather evidence about the incident.

Today will see a second day of work by UN chemical weapons inspectors in Damascus, who are investigating last week’s alleged chemical attack.

A very sudden drumbeat toward some kind of US and/or allied retaliation against Syria seemed to be getting louder.

The US cancelled a meeting with Damascus ally Russia on the Syrian conflict that had been scheduled for this week in The Hague, the State Department said.

imagePic: STR/AP/Press Association Images

In Asia, stocks were down and oil prices were up early today – both shifts blamed on fears of yet another escalation in the brutal 29-month-old Syrian war, this time via a direct American intervention that President Barack Obama has steadfastly tried to avoid.

As recently as Friday, he seemed to rule it out as messy and hard to get out of.

US Secretary of State

Yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of engaging in a cover-up.

Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. “By any standard it is inexcusable, and despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.

Kerry said Washington would provide more evidence of who was behind the attack, and that Obama was determined the guilty would face consequences.

imageFile photo of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Pic: AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere, file

Kerry was speaking as UN inspectors met survivors of last week’s attack, which the independent medical agency Doctors Without Borders has said left at least 355 people dead from “neurotoxic symptoms”.

The UN convoy came under sniper fire as it tried to approach the Damascus suburb where the attack was reported, but the team nevertheless managed to visit victims receiving treatment in two nearby hospitals.

“It was a very productive day,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters, adding that the team, led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, is “already gathering valuable evidence”.

Dangerous

UN leader Ban Ki-moon said that despite the “very dangerous circumstances” the investigators “visited two hospitals, they interviewed witnesses, survivors and doctors. They also collected some samples”.

The UN team was in a buffer zone between government and opposition-held areas when it came under attack.

Ban said the United Nations had made a “strong complaint” to the Syrian government and opposition forces. The rebels and Assad’s government traded blame for the sniper assault just as they did the chemical attack.

imageBlack columns of smoke rise from heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood, east of Damascus, Syria. Pic: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

The United States accused Syrian government forces of resuming their shelling of the attack site soon after the UN team departed in a bid to destroy evidence.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, an Assad ally, meanwhile remained unimpressed by the mounting evidence of an atrocity.

Putin on Monday told British Prime Minister David Cameron there was no proof Damascus had used chemical weapons, according to Cameron’s office.

Cameron cut short his holiday on Monday to return to London to plan a response.

Senior military officers from Western and Muslim countries started gathering in Jordan yesterday to discuss the regional impact of the war in Syria, Jordanian officials said.

US army chief General Martin Dempsey will take part, as would chiefs of staff from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Canada, said an official, cited by state news agency Petra.

A senior Israeli delegation meanwhile visited the White House for high-level talks on the Syrian crisis and the showdown over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

imageIn this photo taken on a government organised media tour, Syrian army soldiers gather on a street in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus. Pic: AP Photo

The Syrian opposition says more than 1,300 people died when toxic gases were unleashed on Eastern Ghouta and Moadamiyet al-Sham, two neighborhoods on the outskirts of Damascus.

Syria approved the UN inspection on Sunday, but US officials said it was too little, too late, arguing that persistent shelling had “corrupted” the site.

The inspection came as the West appeared to be moving closer to launching a military response, after officials confirmed the US Navy has four warships armed with cruise missiles on standby in the eastern Mediterranean.

With China and Moscow expected to boycott any resolution backing a military strike, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the West could act even without full UN Security Council backing.

There is also precedent for Obama to act militarily without US congressional backing, despite a law technically requiring it.

Denial

Assad, in an interview with a Russian newspaper published yesterday, denied accusations his government was behind the attack, calling the charges an “insult to common sense”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meanwhile warned of the “extremely dangerous consequences of a possible new military intervention” and said intervening without a UN Security Council resolution would be illegal.

Experts believe the most likely US action would see sea-launched cruise missiles target Syrian military installations and artillery batteries deemed complicit in the chemical weapons attack.

- © AFP, 2013

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