UN urges Syria to allow for chemical attack probe

US President Barack Obama's administration said it was appalled by the death reports.

A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows people inspecting bodies of children and adults laying on the ground as Syrian rebels claim they were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, 2013. Picture: AFP

BEIRUT - UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday renewed his push for Syria to allow UN inspectors immediate access to investigate allegations that the government carried out a deadly chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus.

"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," the UN chief told a diplomatic forum in Seoul.

Syria's government has offered no public response to UN calls for its team to inspect the site of the attack, which opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said killed from 500 to well over 1,000 people.

A US official familiar with initial intelligence assessments said the attack appeared to be the work of the Assad government. It was "the regime acting as a regime," the official said. But the Obama administration made it clear that any response would await confirmation of a chemical attack and its origin.

Images showed scores of bodies laid out on floors with no visible signs of injury. Some had foam at the nose and mouth.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said world powers must respond with force if allegations that Syria's government was responsible for the deadliest chemical attack on civilians in a quarter-century prove true. But Fabius stressed there was no question of sending in troops on the ground.

Talk of a forceful foreign response remains unlikely to be translated into rapid, concerted action given division between the West and Russia at Wednesday's UN Security Council meeting, and caution from Washington on Thursday.

Moscow has said rebels may have released gas to discredit Assad and urged him to agree to a UN inspection. On Wednesday, Russian objections to Western pressure on Syria saw the Security Council merely call in vague terms for "clarity" - a position increasingly frustrated Syrian rebels described as "shameful".

The State Department said senior US and Russian diplomats would meet in The Hague next Wednesday to discuss ending Syria's civil war, in what would be the first such meeting since allegations of the chemical attack.

A senior State Department official said chemical weapons would top the agenda at the meeting.

Ban said he would send a top UN disarmament official, Angela Kane, to lobby the Syrian government in person and expected a swift, positive answer.

Obama has directed US intelligence agencies to urgently help establish what caused the deaths, a State Department spokeswoman said while acknowledging it may be difficult given that the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Syria.

"At this time, right now, we are unable to conclusively determine CW (chemical weapons) use," the State Department's Jen Psaki told reporters. "We are doing everything possible in our power to nail down the facts," she added.

ACUTE ANXIETY

Syrian officials have called allegations against their forces "illogical and fabricated." They point to the timing of the attack, days after UN inspectors arrived after months of argument, and to previous assurances that, if they possessed chemical weapons, they would never use them against Syrians.

Many rebels and activists in the opposition area say they have lost interest in promises of UN investigations or in help from abroad: "We are 7 km away, just a five-minute car ride from where they are staying," said activist Bara Abdelrahman.

"We're being exterminated with poison gas while they drink their coffee and sit inside their hotels."

Qassem Saadeddine, a commander and spokesperson for the rebels' Supreme Military Council, said the group was still deliberating on how or if it should respond: "People are growing desperate as they watch another round of political statements and UN meetings without any hope of action," he told Reuters.

Syria's revolt against four decades of Assad family rule has turned into a brutal civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people in 2-1/2 years and divided the Middle East along largely sectarian lines.

Syria's southern neighbour Israel, still technically at war with Damascus, said it believed Syrian forces had used chemical weapons and accused the world of turning a blind eye: "The world condemns, the world investigates, the world pays lip service," Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said.

Immediate international action is likely to be limited.

Meanwhile, in news just in Russia has called on Syrian government to cooperate with UN experts to allow investigation into alleged chemical attack.