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'Use of chemical weapons in Syria is undeniable'

US secretary of State John Kerry said Obama was consulting with allies before he decides on how to respond.

Barack Obama answers questions at a news conference. Picture: AFP.

WASHINGTON, Beirut - The United States put Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on notice on Monday that it believes he was responsible for using chemical weapons against civilians last week in what Secretary of State John Kerry called a "moral obscenity."

"President (Barack) Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people," Kerry said in the most forceful US reaction yet to the August 21 attack.

Speaking after UN chemical weapons experts came under sniper fire on their way to investigate the scene of the attack, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the use of chemical weapons was undeniable and "there is very little doubt in our mind that the Syrian regime is culpable."

"What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world," Kerry told reporters.

"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."

Military chiefs from the United States and its European and Middle Eastern allies met in Jordan for what could be a council of war, should they decide to punish Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons and blamed rebels for staging such attacks.

The Washington Post cited senior administration officials as saying Obama is weighing a military strike against Syria that would be of limited scope and duration, while keeping the United States out of deeper involvement in that country's civil war.

Such an attack would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles - or, possibly, long-range bombers - striking military targets not directly related to Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, the newspaper reported.

It said such a move is dependent on three factors: completion of an intelligence report assessing the Syrian government's culpability in the chemical attack, consultation with allies and the US Congress and determination of a justification under international law.

US warships armed with cruise missiles are already positioned in the Mediterranean.

Hundreds of people died in Damascus suburbs in what appears to have been the worst chemical weapons attack since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fatally gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988.

UN investigators crossed the front line from the centre of the capital, which remains under Assad's control, to inspect the Mouadamiya suburb, one of at least four neighbourhoods hit by the poison gas before dawn last Wednesday.

The United Nations said one vehicle in its convoy was crippled by gunshots fired by "unidentified snipers."

Syrian state television blamed rebel "terrorists" for the shooting. The opposition blamed pro-Assad militiamen.

Activists say at least 80 people were killed in Mouadamiya when the district was hit with

The decision to proceed with the mission despite coming under attack thwarted an apparent attempt to halt the inspectors' work before it began.

The inspectors had been stuck in a downtown hotel since the attack, waiting for government permission to visit the scene a few miles away.

ASSAD TOO LATE

Kerry said Assad's decision to finally allow access was too late to be credible. "That is not the behaviour of a government that has nothing to hide," Kerry said, adding that Assad's forces had also destroyed evidence by shelling the area.

"Our sense of basic humanity is offended not only by this cowardly crime, but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up," Kerry said.

Washington and its allies say they worry that the time that has elapsed, and continuous shelling by Assad's forces of the affected areas, could make it impossible for the inspectors to collect evidence.

British Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a holiday to lead a top-level security meeting. Obama, Cameron and French President Francois Hollande all spoke to each other and other allies in the past few days. Cameron also called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday.

ASSAD DEFIANT

Assad denies the accusations that his forces used chemical weapons and said the United States would be defeated if it intervened in his country.

Russia, Assad's main arms supplier and diplomatic defender in the UN Security Council, says rebels may have been behind the chemical attack. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said any intervention in Syria without a Security Council resolution would be a grave violation of international law.

There are precedents. In 1999 NATO attacked Serbia, a Russian ally, without a Security Council resolution, arguing that action was needed to protect civilians in Kosovo.

Turkey, a NATO ally and major backer of Syria's opposition, said it would join any international coalition even if a decision for action could not be reached at the United Nations.

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