LONDON: British Foreign Secretary William Hague yesterday said any evidence of a chemical attack by the Syrian regime may have already been destroyed.
“The fact is that much of the evidence could have been destroyed by that artillery bombardment,” he said, referring to reported continued attacks on the area east of Damascus where the chemical attack is believed to have taken place.
“Other evidence could have degraded over the last few days and other evidence could have been tampered with,” he added, during a press conference given shortly after Damascus gave its green light to a mission by UN inspectors.
The experts are to start investigating the site of the alleged attack today as a sceptical Washington said Syria’s acceptance had come too late.
The Arab League will meet tomorrow to discuss the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the bloc’s deputy chief, Ahmed Ben Helli said.
Permanent delegates would gather at the League’s Cairo headquarters for “urgent talks” to “study the horrible crime of the use of chemical weapons that killed hundreds of innocent people” in Syria, Ben Helli said.
Hague expressed concern that too much time had elapsed for the UN inspectors to gather enough concrete evidence.
“We have to be realistic now about what the UN team can achieve,” he said.
However, he repeated his belief that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s forces were responsible for the alleged attack, claiming “there is a lot of evidence already and it all points in one direction.”
“We are clear in the British government that it was the Assad regime that carried out this large-scale chemical attack,” he added.
“The eyewitness accounts, the fact this area was under bombardment by the regime forces at the time that the chemical attack took place.
“If the regime believed somebody else had carried out this attack then they would have given access to the UN inspectors several days ago,” he argued.
The minister said Britain was working with the international community to formulate a response, with Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama talking via telephone on Saturday.
“They are agreed there must be a serious response by the international community,” he explained.
“We cannot, in the 21st century, allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity, that people can be killed in this way and that there are no consequences for it.”
He would not outline possible responses “for obvious reasons”, but stressed it was “very important to act in accordance with international law and... to have widespread international support”.
In Syria, an Al Qaeda-affiliated rebel commander has pledged to target communities of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s Alawite minority with rockets in revenge for the alleged chemical attack near Damascus, according to an audio recording seen yesterday.
“For every chemical rocket that has fallen on our people in Damascus, one of their villages will, by the will of God, pay for it,” Abu Mohammad Al Golani of the Al Nusra Front said in the recording posted on YouTube. “On top of that we will prepare a thousand rockets that will be fired on their towns in revenge for the Damascus Ghouta massacre.”
“To the bereaved mothers of the children and the people of Ghouta, I say that your blood is a debt that we and every mujahid (Islamic holy fighter) have to pay,” Golani said in the recording entitled, “An eye for an eye”.
Rebel forces have got a boost with Gulf-based supporters sending a 400-ton shipment of arms, one of the biggest to reach them in their two-year-old uprising, opposition sources said.
The consignment — mostly ammunition for shoulder-fired weapons and anti-aircraft machine guns — came into northern Syria via the Turkish province of Hatay in the past 24 hours, and was already being handed out, the sources added.
One rebel officer said the flow of arms bound for rebels had increased since opposition groups accused the government of launching deadly chemical weapons attacks in Damascus.
“Twenty trailers crossed from Turkey and are being distributed to arms depots for several brigades across the north,” said rebel official Mohammad Salam, who said he saw the weapons come over the border.
Rebel units in northern Syria range from moderate Islamists to jihadists and include Liwa Al Islam (The Division of Islam), Sukur Al Sham (The Hawks of Syria), The Free Martyrs of Syria, Ahfad Al Rasul (The Grandsons of the Prophet) and Ahrar Al Sham (The Freemen of Syria).