Beirut, Aug. 25 (Reuters): Syria has agreed to let the UN inspect the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack from Monday but a US official said any such offer would be “too late to be credible” and there was little doubt the government was to blame.
Foreign powers have been searching for a response since many hundreds of people were killed by poisonous gas on Wednesday in Damascus suburbs in what appears to have been the world’s worst chemical weapons attack in 25 years.
The United Nations said Damascus had agreed to a ceasefire while a UN team of experts are at the site for inspections, which will begin on Monday. Syria confirmed it had agreed to allow the inspections.
But there were increasing signs that the US and its allies were considering taking action, a year after President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that would prompt serious consequences.
A senior US official said there was very little doubt that the Syrian government had used a chemical weapon and that Washington was still weighing how to respond.
“At this juncture, any belated decision by the regime to grant access to the UN team would be considered too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other international actions over the last five days,” the official said.
Syria’s information minister said any US military action would “create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East”.
He said Damascus had evidence that chemical weapons were used by rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, not by his government. Western countries say they believe the rebels do not have access to poison gas.
Western leaders have been phoning each other in recent days and issuing declarations promising response.
“This crime must not be swept under the carpet,” British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said after a telephone call with French President Francois Hollande about the crisis this morning.
“France is determined that this act does not go unpunished,” Hollande’s office said.
A team of UN chemical weapons inspectors had arrived in Syria three days before Wednesday’s incident to investigate other earlier reports of chemical weapons use. Since Wednesday, the 20-strong team has been waiting in a Damascus luxury hotel a few miles from the site.
Assad’s closest ally Iran, repeating Obama’s own previous rhetoric, said the US should not cross a “red line” by attacking Syria.
The Syrian Opposition says between 500 and well over 1,000 civilians were killed this week by gas in munitions fired by pro-government forces.
Three hospitals near Damascus reported 355 deaths after Wednesday’s attack, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres had said yesterday.
The head of al Qaida-linked Nusra Front rebel group has pledged to target communities from Assad’s Alawite sect with rockets in revenge, according to an audio recording published on YouTube.
“For every chemical rocket that had fallen on our people in Damascus, one of their villages will, by the will of God, pay for it,” Abu Mohammad al-Golani said in the recording.