France says force needed if Syrian chemical attack proved true

A woman mourning over a body after an apparent chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus. Photograph: Daya Al-Deen/AFP/Getty Images
France says the international community must respond with force if opposition allegations that Syrian forces used chemical weapons in an attack near Damascus prove true.
But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Thursday ruled out the use of ground troops.
An emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council has called for a prompt investigation into an alleged chemical weapons attack outside the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Syria’s opposition accused the government on Wednesday of using chemical arms to strike rebel-held areas in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, killing hundreds of people.
"There is a strong concern among council members about the allegations and a general sense that there must be clarity on what happened and the situation must be followed closely," Argentina\’s UN ambassador, Maria Cristina Perceval, told reporters after a two-hour, closed-door emergency meeting of the council.
She added that council members – who were briefed by Deputy-Secretary General Jan Eliasson – "welcomed Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon\’s determination to ensure a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation".
The Syrian government has denied the chemical weapons allegations. It says the opposition is trying to distract United Nations inspectors who are in the country to investigate government claims that rebels used chemical weapons earlier this year.
The Arab League and Western powers, including the United States, also urged Syria\’s government to allow U.N. inspectors to immediately visit the sites.
Russia\’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said circumstances around the reports, including the presence of UN inspectors in the country, suggested that attack could be a provocation by the opposition.
"All this cannot but suggest that once again we are dealing with a pre-planned provocation. This is supported by the fact that the criminal act was committed near Damascus at the very moment when a mission of UN experts had successfully started their work of investigating allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons there," Lukashevich said in a statement.
Syrian opposition reports of the death toll from Wednesday\’s attacks varied widely. Opposition leader George Sabra of the exiled Syrian National Coalition told a news conference in Istanbul the number of those killed is as high as 1,300. His claim could not be independently verified.
Syrian activists said government troops unleashed an artillery and rocket barrage against several Damascus suburbs, with some of the weapons allegedly containing chemical elements. They posted videos online showing scores of bodies of adults and children laid out on the floor of makeshift clinics with no visible signs of injuries.
The White House said it is "deeply concerned" by the reports and called for those responsible for using chemical weapons to be held accountable. It said the Syrian government must allow U.N. investigators to "examine and collect physical evidence without any interference or manipulation."
The mandate of the U.N. inspection team is limited to establishing whether chemical weapons – including sarin and other toxic nerve agents – were used, not who used them.
The Syrian government also has restricted the mission to investigating several specific incidents, including a March attack in the Aleppo suburb of Khan al-Assal.
Videos distributed by activists, which could not be independently verified, showed medics attending to asphyxiating children and hospitals being overwhelmed. More footage showed dozens of people laid out on the ground, with no visible wounds or trauma.
There have been conflicting reports on the death toll. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog group, said that the attack killed at least 100 people.
Syria is widely believed to possess large undeclared stockpiles of mustard gas and sarin nerve agent.
Syria has been embroiled in a war for more than two years, during which more than 100,000 people have been killed and millions have been displaced or become refugees in other countries, according to the United Nations.
Source: Agencies
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