U.N. in talks with Syria over alleged chemical attack

UNITED NATIONS Wed Aug 21, 2013 1:12pm EDT

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Chief U.N. chemical weapons inspector Ake Sellstrom is in discussions with the Syrian government over an alleged chemical weapons attack on Wednesday and is following the situation carefully, the United Nations said.

The United States, Britain and France will ask U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later on Wednesday to open an investigation into what may be one of the deadliest incidents of Syria's two-year-old civil war, U.N. diplomats said on condition of anonymity.

Western and regional countries have called for U.N. chemical weapons investigators, who arrived in Damascus three days ago to look into previous allegations of such attacks, to be dispatched to the scene of the latest reported attack, which occurred in suburbs east of Damascus.

"Professor Sellstrom is in discussions with the Syrian government on all issues pertaining to the alleged use of chemical weapons, including this most recent reported incident," the U.N. press office said in a statement.

Ban was shocked by the report of the alleged attack, the statement said.

The U.N. mission of Argentina, the president of the 15-nation U.N. Security Council this month, said the council would hold an emergency meeting at 3 p.m. EDT to discuss the latest alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Syria's opposition accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces of gassing many hundreds of people - by one report as many as 1,300 - in a pre-dawn attack on Wednesday. Assad's government denied using chemical weapons.

"Today, we are formally requesting that the United Nations urgently investigate this new allegation," White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement. "The U.N. investigative team, which is currently in Syria, is prepared to do so, and that is consistent with its purpose and mandate."

Russia's Foreign Ministry called for a fair and professional investigation into reports that troops loyal to Assad were responsible for the suspected attack.

But Moscow suggested that rebels could have staged the alleged assault to provoke international action.

It was not immediately clear how the Syrian government would respond to requests to allow Sellstrom's team to investigate the alleged incident. The United Nations and Assad's government were in talks for months before an agreement led to the arrival of Sellstrom's team in Damascus this week.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Vicki Allen and Xavier Briand)

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