(Opposition statement, Fabius, U.S. comment, U.N. chief)
* France says nerve agent sarin has been used
* U.S. could leave missiles, F-16s in Jordan beyond exercise
* Residents of Qusair face renewed attack
* Calls for humanitarian access to besieged city
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN, June 4 France said on Tuesday it had
performed tests that proved President Bashar al-Assad's forces
had used nerve gas in Syria's civil war, a "red line" that the
United States and other countries have repeatedly said would
demand a response.
Washington separately said it would deploy Patriot missiles
and F-16 fighter jets to Syria's neighbour Jordan for a military
exercise and perhaps longer. Russia, Assad's main international
backer, criticized the move and accused the West of inflaming
the conflict by sending arms to the war zone.
French officials said their tests were the first that
complied with international standards and proved that chemical
weapons were used in Syria.
Washington, which has said for months it believes Assad's
forces probably used chemical weapons, said it still needed to
study the evidence. "We need more information" about claims of
such use, White House spokesman Jay Carney told
Speaking on France 2 television, French Foreign Minister
Laurent Fabius said Paris had tested samples collected in Syria,
and that some proved that the Syrian government had used sarin,
the deadly nerve agent Saddam Hussein used in Iraq.
In one case it was not possible to prove who was
responsible, but "in the second case there is no doubt that it
was the regime and its accomplices, because we are aware of the
entire chain from when the attack took place, to when the people
were killed and when the samples were taken," he said.
The results were handed to the head of a U.N. chemical
weapons investigation team on Tuesday in Paris, Fabius said.
A French diplomatic source said samples included blood and
urine from victims, taken after a government helicopter bombed
Saraqib near the northern city of Idlib on April 29.
The mounting evidence of the use of poison gas poses a
dilemma for Western countries including the United States, which
have promised to act if such weapons are used but have no
obvious path for a military intervention.
The Patriot anti-aircraft missiles and F-16s that Washington
will send to Jordan are officially intended for a military
exercise to be held this month, but a U.S. official said
Washington would consider keeping them in place.
If left in Jordan, Patriot missiles could be used to protect
the country - a Sunni Muslim U.S. ally - against any possible
missile attack as the Syrian war threatens to widen into a more
regional, sectarian conflict.
Moscow sees the surface-to-air missiles as particularly
contentious, enabling the United States and its allies to impose
a no-fly zone and potentially heralding the first Western
military action of the war.
"We have more than once stated our opinion on this - foreign
weapons are being pumped into an explosive region," Russian
Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
"This is happening very close to Syria, where for more than
two years the flames are burning of a devastating conflict that
Russia and its American partners are trying to stop by proposing
to hold an international peace conference as soon as possible."
Moscow objected vociferously last year when NATO deployed
U.S., German and Dutch Patriot missile batteries in Turkey on
the Syrian border. Russia has said it would send its own
anti-aircraft missile system, the S-300, to Assad.
Washington and Moscow have called a peace conference for
this month, the first time in a year the superpowers supporting
opposite sides in the civil war have tried to find a diplomatic
solution to end it.
A war that Western countries had hoped would quickly lead to
Assad's defeat now offers no end in sight. Rebels seized swathes
of the country during the second half of last year, but in
recent weeks Assad has launched a major counter-offensive and
brought in seasoned fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia,
shifting the momentum and showing he will not be soon defeated.
Both sides have been accused of ever more horrific
atrocities. Millions of people have been driven from their
homes, sectarian bloodshed has spread to Lebanon and Iraq,
Israel has bombed Damascus and civil unrest has swept Turkey.
Assad, an adherent of the Alawite minority offshoot of
Shi'ite Islam, is supported by Russia and regional Shi'ite power
Iran. His enemies are supported by the West, Turkey and
Sunni-ruled Arab states, especially wealthy Saudi Arabia and
RED LINE CROSSED?
Syria has not signed up to an international treaty banning
the use of chemical weapons but has said it would never use them
in an internal conflict.
Both the Syrian government and the rebels accuse each other
of using chemical weapons, although Washington and other Western
countries say they doubt the rebels have done so.
Asked whether a "red line" had been crossed, Fabius said
"undoubtedly". Paris was discussing with allies how to react.
"All options are on the table," he said. "That means either
we decide not to react or we decide to react including by armed
actions targeting the place where the gas is stored."
He said the military option was not at the top of the list
for now as it was still vital to ensure that efforts to reach a
peaceful solution were not hindered.
The French diplomatic source said Paris hoped the results of
its chemical tests would help U.N. investigators push their case
to enter Syria. When inspectors report, France will push for
action at the U.N. Security Council, where three resolutions
against Assad have so far been vetoed by Russia and China.
"This is a way of adding pressure on Syria and those who
support it," the source said. "I can't see how Russia could
defend the use of chemical weapons."
In Syria, the besieged city of Qusair came under renewed
missile and air attack as fighting there dragged into a third
week, prompting calls for humanitarian access to offer some
relief to the thousands trapped by government forces.
Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah guerrillas have besieged
the rebel-held town which controls vital supply routes from
Lebanon and access between Damascus and the coastal heartland of
Assad's minority Alawite sect.
As Syrian government forces try to grind down the rebels in
Qusair, trapped civilians have had to choose between sheltering
from the bombs or risking a 100 km (60 mile) journey to safety.
"Qusair itself is described as a ghost town, heavily damaged
and filled with the sound of bombs. People are hiding in bunkers
or, even worse, in holes that they've dug," U.N. refugee agency
spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told a briefing in Geneva.
"One woman told us that she spent, with her children, one
week inside a hole that was dug into the ground."
Opposition leaders called for the creation of a humanitarian
corridor to allow people from Qusair to flee to Lebanon.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said the Syrian
government had said it was willing to grant the agency access to
Qusair once military operations there were ended.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Stephanie Nebehay
in Geneva, Phil Stewart in Washington and Michelle Nichols in
New York; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)