For UN, Syria chemical probe is as ‘urgent’ as never before
DAMASCUS - A top UN official was in Damascus on Saturday to press for an inquiry into alleged chemical weapons attacks, after Washington suggested it is weighing military action against Syria's regime.
As Under Secretary General Angela Kane arrived at a Damascus hotel, the Syrian government accused rebels of having used chemical weapons northeast of the capital in Wednesday's attacks.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said commanders were mulling "options" should President Barack Obama decide to use military action against Syria.
The New York Times cited a senior US administration official as saying Washington was looking at NATO's air war over Kosovo in 1999 as a blueprint for strikes on Syria without a UN mandate.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius piled the pressure on Damascus, saying the regime carried out a "chemical massacre", following similar accusations from his British counterpart.
"All the information at our disposal converge to indicate that there was a chemical massacre near Damascus and that the Bashar regime is responsible," Fabius said on a visit to the West Bank.
His comments came as Damascus ally Iran pointed to the use of chemical weapons in Syria for the first time, blaming the rebels and warning the West against any military intervention.
The opposition accuses President Bashar al-Assad's government of killing more than 1,300 people in gas attacks Wednesday southwest and east of the capital.
State television on Saturday countered these claims and said soldiers who tried to enter the rebel-held area had "suffocated" on gases.
"An army unit is surround a sector of Jobar where terrorists used chemical weapons," it said in reference to the rebels who have been trying to topple Assad since 2011.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has handed Kane the task of establishing the terms of an inquiry in talks with Syrian officials and has also called on the rebels to cooperate.
Ban is determined to "conduct a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation" into the chemical claims, his spokesman said.
Syria has yet to say if it will let UN experts -- already on the ground since Sunday to probe three other sites -- to inspect the latest allegations.
France wants "force" to be used against the Syrian regime if the claims are confirmed but Obama has voiced caution.
US commanders have nevertheless prepared a range of "options" for the president if he chooses to proceed with military strikes against Damascus, Hagel said on Friday.
"The Defence Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies," he said.
"And that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options -- whatever the president might choose." He did not elaborate.
A defence official said the US Navy would expand its presence in the Mediterranean with a fourth warship armed with cruise missiles.
But Iran said "proof" indicated rebels were behind the chemical attacks.
Harrowing footage released by activists showing unconscious children, people foaming around the mouth and doctors apparently giving them oxygen has triggered revulsion around the world.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague blamed Syria saying it carried out a "large scale" chemical attack and insisted that Damascus give UN inspectors access to the suspect sites.
Russia urged Damascus to cooperate with the UN but dismissed calls for use of force against its ally.
The foreign ministry said Internet footage distributed by the opposition said to implicate the regime had been posted "several hours before the so-called attack".
In statements published on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel accused Russia and China of having blocked a UN text demanding the inspectors be given unfettered access.
Syria's main opposition National Coalition pledged to guarantee the safety of the inspectors but warned the "clock is ticking" before alleged evidence vanishes.
One year ago, Obama warned the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a "red line" and have "enormous consequences".
The United Nations says more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising against Assad's rule flared in March 2011, while millions more have fled the country or been internally displaced.
The violence continued Saturday, with a watchdog accusing the regime of striking by air several rebel positions, including in Jobar, and reporting that insurgents seized a strategic town in the northwest.