Syrian opposition says it is fully committed to getting U.N. inspectors to site of attack
President Barack Obama says signs point to a "big event of grave concern"
Russia suggests Syrian opposition is blocking access to the alleged attack site
U.N. agencies say 1 million children have now fled Syria as refugees
U.N. inspectors in Syria face a race against time to get to the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack to gather vital evidence, but the big question Friday was whether red tape would prevent that.
Since Friday was not a working day in Syria, government offices were closed and many government officials were off. Syria’s heavy bureaucracy may also mire the progress of the international demands for access.
The U.N. team is in Syria to examine previous claims of chemical weapons use at three unrelated sites, so it needs special permission to go to the scene of the latest alleged attack in Ghouta, a rebel stronghold on the outskirts of the capital.
The area, which is contested, appeared to be the target of shelling again Thursday night.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that allegations the Syrian regime used chemical weapons should be investigated immediately, adding there was “no time to waste” in getting the team into Ghouta.
He said he had called on the Syrian government to allow the team access and was sending U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane to Damascus to press the case for an urgent investigation.
“I can think of no good reason why any party – either government or opposition forces – would decline this opportunity to get to the truth of the matter,” Ban said.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested the delay in granting access was suspicious. “It seems that the Assad regime has something to hide,” he said.
“This is not something that a humane or civilized world can ignore. Our priority is to make sure the world knows the facts of what has happened, and that means the U.N. team that is in Damascus, only 20 minutes away, being able to get there and to investigate.”
Time is of the essence, Hague added, since the evidence will deteriorate “over a matter of days.”
The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons.
Syrian rebels promise access
Russia’s Foreign Ministry appeared Friday to accuse the Syrian opposition of blocking U.N. access to the site.
“Signals from the opposition, including those of its readiness to ensure the safety and effective work of U.N. experts on territory controlled by its militants, which is so needed today, are not being heard,” it said in a statement. “This directly contradicts an objective investigation into allegations on possible cases of chemical weapons use in Syria, which is what many countries are calling for and what Russia is calling for.”
The ministry earlier Friday said that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had called for both the Syrian government and opposition to allow access, in a conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
On Wednesday, the ministry had seemed to imply that the opposition was responsible for the use of chemical weapons, issuing a statement saying that an “improvised missile was launched from the positions occupied by militants” and that an “aggressive information attack” was designed to fool the world into believing that the Syrian regime was responsible.
On Friday, leaders of the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella opposition group, told reporters in Istanbul that the opposition and leaders of the Free Syrian Army are “fully committed” to helping the U.N. inspectors reach all locations where chemical weapons were allegedly used.
“We hereby assure the U.N. inspectors, the U.N. secretary general and all members of the United Nations that we will ensure the safety of the U.N. inspectors’ team,” said spokesman Khaled al-Saleh.
“However, it is very critical to get that team into the area that was just hit in less than 48 hours. The clock is ticking, we want to see those inspectors and we believe that the evidence will show who used these chemical weapons against innocent civilians.”
Al-Saleh said that medical teams in the area hit administered 25,000 shots of atropine – a medication used to treat people exposed to the nerve gas sarin – after the attack, and that the toll would have been much higher if that had not been done.