West stalls Syria chemical attack probe in U.N.: Russia

UNITED NATIONS Wed Mar 20, 2013 7:54pm EDT

Bashar Ja'afari, Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting at the United Nations in New York April 21, 2012. REUTERS/Allison Joyce

Bashar Ja'afari, Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting at the United Nations in New York April 21, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Allison Joyce

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Russia clashed with Britain and France at the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday over the scope of an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, accusing Western powers of trying to torpedo a potential U.N. probe.

Syria asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack by "terrorist groups" near the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday, Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said. Russia supports that request.

Britain and France cited Syrian opposition claims that there were two chemical weapons attacks, one in Damascus and another in Aleppo, on Tuesday and demanded that both be investigated. Russia's U.N. envoy disagreed strongly with the idea of focusing an urgently needed U.N. investigation on multiple incidents.

The dispute highlighted the chasm between Russia's position toward the Syrian government, its ally, and that of the Western powers who support the opposition trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad. The deadlock on the 15-nation council has left it powerless to act on Syria's two-year-old civil war.

"The Syrian government has requested the Secretary-General of the United Nations to form a specialized, independent and a neutral, technical mission to investigate the use by the terrorist groups operating in Syria of chemical weapons yesterday against civilians," Ja'afari told reporters.

Syria's government and rebels accused each other of launching a deadly chemical attack, but U.S. and European officials say there is no evidence to suggest there was such an attack. If confirmed, it would be the first use of such weapons in the conflict.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the United Nations had received Ja'afari's written request for an investigation and it was being studied.

The Security Council discussed the issue on Wednesday, Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters after the closed-door session. He complained that Britain and France wanted to focus on two alleged chemical weapons attacks rather than the one in Aleppo, which he said was a delaying tactic and unnecessary.

'FACTS ARE NOT CLEAR'

British deputy ambassador Philip Parham and French ambassador Gerard Araud said their position, and that of the majority of council members, was that the U.N. must investigate both alleged chemical weapon attacks.

"The (Syrian) National Coalition issued a statement today saying that there had been two cases of chemical weapons being used in Syria yesterday, one in the Damascus area and one in the Aleppo area," Parham said.

"The facts are not clear at the moment," he said. "What we have is reports and allegations. They are very serious and they need to be investigated."

Ja'afari said he was not aware of a second alleged chemical weapons attack on Tuesday.

"This (second) allegation was set up on purpose to torpedo the investigation on the real use of chemical weapons which took place in Aleppo," he told reporters. "If there were any good intentions on the part of the French delegation they should have supported the Syrian request (for an investigation)."

Churkin said France, the United States and Britain also wanted to saddle their request for a U.N. investigation into chemical weapons attacks with additional matters such as humanitarian access in Syria.

"To me, a concern which I expressed in the council, was that this was really a way to delay the need for immediate, urgent investigation of allegations pertaining to March 19 by raising all sorts of issues," he said.

He also questioned the veracity of the allegations about a second chemical weapons attack on Tuesday in Damascus.

"Instead of launching those propaganda balloons I think it's much better to get our focus right," said Churkin, who is president of the Security Council for March. "As far as I know there is only one allegation of the use of chemical weapons ... there have been no other allegations."

Parham responded by questioning the credibility of the Syrian government, which he said has used heavy weapons against civilians.

"It is worth just remembering how many distortions and falsehoods we have been hearing from the Syrian regime over the last two years," he said.

"It is the Syrian regime which has stockpiles of chemical weapons and material in Syria," Parham said, adding that Syria was responsible for ensuring that those stockpiles are secure.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Paul Simao)

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