DAMASCUS (AFP) – Russia hit out Friday at calls for force to be used after Syria’s opposition and European states accused the war-torn country’s regime of killing hundreds in chemical weapons attacks.
As the regime’s international allies and foes traded barbs over the reported atrocity, US President Barack Obama said the alleged use of chemical weapons was “clearly a big event of grave concern”.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF said, meanwhile, that one million Syrian children now live as refugees abroad as a result of the relentless fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
The opposition said the regime of Assad, an ally of Moscow, used chemical weapons east and southwest of Damascus in attacks Wednesday that killed hundreds of people.
The regime denies it unleashed any chemical attacks.
Harrowing footage distributed by activists showing unconscious children, people foaming around the mouth and doctors apparently giving them oxygen to help them breathe has triggered revulsion around the world.
A day after French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged a reaction “with force” if a massacre involving chemical weapons is confirmed, his British counterpart said his government believed Assad’s regime was behind the attacks.
“We do believe this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime on a large scale, but we would like the United Nations to be able to assess that,” said Britain’s William Hague.
His televised statement came after Russia’s foreign ministry branded as “unacceptable” calls for use of force against the Damascus regime.
“Against the background of another anti-Syrian wave of propaganda, we believe calls from some European countries to apply pressure on the UN Security Council and already now take a decision on the use of force are unacceptable,” the ministry said.
It said evidence was mounting that the attack was “clearly provocative in nature” and that Internet footage said to implicate the regime had been posted before it took place. It also accused the rebels of “directly impeding an objective investigation” of the incident.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a statement issued after he held a telephone conversation with his US counterpart John Kerry, said Moscow “called on the Syrian government to cooperate with the UN chemical experts”.
Lavrov also appealed for rebels to allow the UN inspectors on the ground in Syria probing three other suspected chemical attack sites safe access to areas where the latest alleged attacks occurred.
Both Lavrov and Kerry agreed on the need for an “objective investigation,” the Russian ministry said.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said there was “no time to lose” in probing the alleged attacks, and urged Damascus to allow the UN team in Syria to begin an investigation without delay.
Obama said the latest opposition allegations of chemical weapons use were more serious than previous ones against Assad’s regime.
“We are right now gathering information about this particular event,” he said, while warning against the United States intervening hastily and getting “mired in very difficult situations”.
One year ago, Obama warned the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line” and have “enormous consequences”.
Damascus has denied it unleashed chemical weapons, while playing down the likelihood of the UN team going to the area of the latest alleged attacks.
“On the international level, there is increasing conviction that if there was a chemical weapons attack, it was perpetrated by terrorists, but it may be that this is a great charade,” a security official told AFP.
The UN inspectors on the ground “are working on a programme that has been set in advance,” said the official.
The opposition National Coalition says more than 1,300 people were killed in gas attacks southwest and east of the capital.
An activist speaking to AFP from Moadamiyet al-Sham, the rebel-held town southwest of Damascus where the deadliest attack allegedly took place, said he helped bury dozens of civilians who died of “suffocation”.
Videos posted online by the activists have provoked shock and condemnation around the globe.
None could be verified but AFP analysed one of the most striking images showing the bodies of children using specialised software.
It showed the picture was not manipulated and was taken, as presented, on August 21.
Experts said convulsions, pinpoint pupils and laboured breathing seen in the footage could be symptoms of nerve gas. But they insisted only blood and urine samples could provide definitive proof.
The United Nations says more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since its uprising flared in March 2011. Millions more have been forced to flee their homes.
UNICEF said on Friday that one million Syrian children now live as refugees abroad, and two million more have been internally displaced.
“This one millionth child refugee is not just another number. This is a real child ripped from home, maybe even from a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend,” agency chief Anthony Lake said.
UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned the conflict is “the biggest threat to peace and security in the world”.