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Activists in the town of Arbeen, near the Syrian capital Damascus, said at least 100 people were killed in the midnight attack carried out by armed units of the government of President Bashar Al Assad yesterday.
George Sabra of the Syrian political opposition said at least 1,300 people died in the shelling on the district of Ghouta near Damascus on August 20 and 21. These figures have not been verified.
The Syrian government denied launching such an attack and said that the timing suggested rebels were trying to derail a UN inspections mission to determine which side used prohibited munitions in March 2013.
By Wednesday night, several hours after the alleged attack, five permanent and 10 rotating members backed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s determination to ensure a “thorough investigation” to reveal what happened.
But the final statement was watered down, press sources have said, after permanent members Russia and China blocked a stronger version drawn up by France and the UK and supported by the US.
Russia earlier lashed out at a report from Syrian rebels claiming that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons to kill dozens of people near the capital Damascus.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that it had information that a homemade rocket carrying unidentified chemical substances had been launched from an area controlled by the opposition.
“All this cannot but suggest that once again we are dealing with a pre-planned provocation,” Lukashevich said in a statement.
“This is supported by the fact that the criminal act was committed near Damascus at the very moment when a mission of UN experts had successfully started their work of investigating allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons there,” he said.
Lukashevich did, however, urge a thorough investigation of the allegations.
Lukashevich’s statement came a few hours after the UK threw its support behind French President Francois Hollande’s call for UN inspectors currently investigating chemical weapons use in Syria to visit Ghouta.
This attack “requires verification and confirmation” a French government spokesperson quoting Hollande told the media.
For his part, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “If verified, this would be a shocking escalation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria”.
“We are determined the people responsible will one day be held to account,” Hague told reporters in Brussels.
But Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish expert heading the 20-member UN team in Damascus, told the media that a formal request for a visit to Ghouta from a member state would have to go through the UN first and that would be followed by the condition that the Syrian government agrees.
Following the Security Council session, UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who briefed the council, expressed hope that the Syrian government will give the team currently in Damascus access to the site as soon as possible, but he warned that the security situation remained volatile and could hinder access.