BEIRUT -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday dispatched his top disarmament official to Syria to seek permission for U.N. investigators to visit a Damascus suburb where the Syrian opposition claims that chemical weapons were used against civilians.
Mr. Ban instructed Germany's Angela Kane, the U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs, to fly to Damascus to try to persuade the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to grant the U.N. team access to the site of Wednesday's alleged chemical attack.
"The secretary-general believes that the incidents reported yesterday need to be investigated without delay," according to a statement from his office. It said Mr. Ban wants the U.N. mission members "to be granted permission and access to swiftly investigate the incident." The statement added: "A formal request is being sent by the United Nations to the government of Syria in this regard. He expects to receive a positive response without delay."
The statement was issued after France on Thursday raised the possibility of international intervention in Syria if there is solid proof that Mr. Assad's forces used chemical weapons against his people.
Activists, meanwhile, struggled to confirm that more than 1,000 people had perished, as experts warned that vital physical evidence could dissipate unless a U.N. investigative team -- already in the country to investigate previous claims of poisonous gas use -- was given permission to visit the site.
Although the United States, France, Britain and others have specifically requested that the inspection team proceed, "there is a requirement of consent in situations like this," Deputy U.N. Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said, "and also that the security situation will allow them to enter the area. It is a very dramatic situation, and the security situation right now does not allow such access."
The Syrian government on Wednesday strongly denied that there had been an attack. But widely circulated images of children in spasms and vomiting added to the pressure on the United States and the international community to take robust action.
The alleged attack came almost exactly a year after President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons by Mr. Assad's forces would be a "red line" for his administration.
"There would have to be reaction with force in Syria from the international community," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French television network BFM, when asked about action that should be taken if the allegations are proven. He added, however, that "there is no question of sending troops on the ground."
Mr. Fabius alluded to the possibility that the international community might need to circumvent the United Nations Security Council, which has been stymied in acting on Syria by veto-wielding Russia, a long-time ally of Mr. Assad's. During an emergency meeting Wednesday, the council's members failed to agree on a strongly worded statement condemning the attack, simply calling for a "thorough, impartial and prompt investigation."
Britain, France and the United States were pushing for a stronger statement, but Russia and China objected, The Associated Press reported. The Russian government, Mr. Assad's strongest supporter, suggested that the opposition itself had staged the attack in a "pre-planned provocation."
Under its current mandate and agreement with Syrian government, the U.N. team inside Syria is authorized to examine only three sites of 13 that various other governments and the Syrian opposition had identified as suspicious before the Wednesday attack.
Opposition groups are still giving vastly different estimates of the number of people killed Wednesday. While an activist from the Revolutionary Command Council said more than 1,700 may have perished, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has gained a reputation for putting out some of the most accurate figures on deaths during the 21/2-year-old civil war, put the number vastly lower, at 136.
Witnesses said the attack began when Russian-made Grad rockets began falling around 2 a.m. Wednesday in neighborhoods east of the capital, where rebels have had some recent success in repelling government forces.
First Published August 23, 2013 12:00 AM