France raises spectre of military response to Syria ‘poison attack’

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France’s foreign minister says the international community may have to use force if it is proven that Syria used chemical weapons in an attack the opposition says killed more than 100 people.

Laurent Fabius spoke a day after the UN Security Council called for “a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation” of the latest allegations against the regime, in a statement that diplomats say was watered down by objections from Syria allies Russia and China.

Opposition forces and activists have said that at least 136 people, including many children, were killed in the attack on Wednesday in which most bodies bore no sign of wounds. The United States, Britain, France and others have demanded that a team of UN experts already in Syria be granted immediate access to investigate the site.

Mr Fabius did not make clear how the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime might be proven. But if there is proof of a chemical weapons attack by the regime, “we need a reaction by the international community... a reaction of force”, he told RMC radio.

He excluded boots on the ground as an option, “but a reaction that can take a form, I don’t want to be more precise, of force”.

France has been at the forefront of efforts to rid Syria of President Bashir Assad. It was the first to back the opposition Syrian National Coalition and appoint a coalition ambassador in Paris. With Britain, it pressed for the lifting of European arms sanctions, though once they were lifted pulled back and said it is supplying non-lethal military equipment plus humanitarian aid.

Mr Fabius said he spoke at length with the head of the coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, who “confirmed absolutely” that the regime was behind the chemical attack. The Syrian government has adamantly denied using chemical weapons in an artillery barrage targeting suburbs east of Damascus.

The attack coincided with the visit to Syria by a 20-member UN chemical weapons team which only has a mandate to investigate three previous allegations of chemical weapons use. Without a mandate, which needs Syria’s approval, the investigators would not be able to visit the site of the attack.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich reiterated his claims that the accusations against Assad could be a bid to get the Security Council to stand by the opposition, and to undermine efforts to resolve the conflict by convening a peace conference in Geneva.

“This all smacks of an attempt, at any cost, to establish grounds for forwarding the demands of the enemies of the regime” to the Security Council, he said, pointing to the timing of “this crime near Damascus” and the arrival of the UN team as evidence of “premeditated provocation”.

He said Russia’s information indicated that the rocket that could have carried the toxic chemical had been launched from positions in a Damascus suburb occupied by opposition forces.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague yesterday urged international supporters of the Syrian regime to “wake up to... its murderous and barbaric nature”.

Following a meeting with Turkish foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu, Mr Hague said: “We discussed the situation in Syria and appalling reports that hundreds of people have been killed in a chemical weapons attack and air strikes on rebel-held areas near Damascus.

“We agreed that the Syrian government must allow immediate access to the area for the UN team currently investigating previous allegations of chemical weapons use.”

On June 13, Washington said it had conclusive evidence that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against opposition forces.