U.N. experts in Syria to visit site of poison gas attack

BEIRUT,  (Reuters) – U.N. weapons experts are due today to inspect a site where poison gas killed many hundreds of people in Damascus suburbs, amid calls from Western capitals for military action to punish the world’s worst apparent chemical weapons attack in 25 years.

Syria agreed yesterday to allow the inspectors to visit the site. The United States and its allies say evidence has been destroyed by government shelling of the area over the past five days, and the Syrian offer to allow inspectors came too late.

Washington has faced calls for action in response to Wednesday’s attack, which came a year after President Barack Obama declared use of chemical weapons to be a “red line” which would require a firm response.

Obama has been reluctant to intervene in Syria’s 2-1/2-year-old conflict and U.S. officials stressed that he has yet to make a decision on how to respond. A senior senator, Republican Bob Corker, said he believed Obama would ask Congress for authorisation to use force when lawmakers return from summer recess next month.

Secretary of State John Kerry said in a round of phone calls to his foreign counterparts that there was “very little doubt” the Syrian government had gassed its own citizens.

The State Department said Kerry emphasised this in calls to the foreign ministers of France, Britain and Canada as well as to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russia, a major ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has suggested rebels may have been behind the chemical attack and said it would be a “tragic mistake” to jump to conclusions over who was responsible.

The White House said Obama and French President Francois Hollande “discussed possible responses by the international community”.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed that “such an attack demanded a firm response from the international community,” Cameron’s office said.

Syria watchers said the government’s decision to allow the inspections may have been an attempt to stave off intervention.

“My view is that the Syrian government’s apparent agreement to the U.N. inspection has been triggered by the growing possibility of military action,” said Malcolm Chalmers, Research Director at the Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.

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