UNITED Nations inspectors are today due to inspect the scene of a suspected chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of civilians, many of them children, in Syria.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said the British Government was “clear” that President Bashar Assad’s regime was responsible but warned that much of the evidence may have been destroyed since the poison gas attack last Wednesday.
The Syrian government yesterday gave permission for a team of UN experts visit the site in the suburbs of the capital Damascus.
It has been accused of stalling since Britain and allies called for access at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in the immediate aftermath last week.
“We have to be realistic now about what the UN team can achieve,” said Mr Hague.
“They will no doubt work hard at it but the fact is that much of the evidence could have been destroyed by that artillery bombardment; other evidence could have become degraded over the last few days and other evidence could have been tampered with.
“So we have to recognise that it is evidence some of which could by now have become compromised.”
He added: “If the regime believed somebody else had carried out this attack then they would have given access to the UN inspectors several days ago.”
Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama are “agreed there must be a serious response by the international community”, he said.
“We cannot in the twenty first 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 said.
Further talks are set to take place both within the British Government and with its allies today as the options for that response are deliberated.
Washington has also accused Syria of having “something to hide” by delaying access.
President Obama has previously suggested the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game-changer”.
But he has stopped short of committing to direct intervention in the troubled country – a step that would risk inflaming tensions with Russia.
Mr Cameron would also face domestic resistance to military action, with Tory MPs already having insisted there should be a Commons vote before arms are supplied to rebels.
But there is speculation that the US, Britain and France could back limited airstrikes to demonstrate that deployment of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.
International emergency aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said hospitals it supports in Syria reported treating around 3,600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” on Wednesday, 355 of whom died.
It said the patients, who were suffering convulsions, extreme salivation, contracted pupils and sight and respiratory problems, arrived in three hospitals in the Damascus area in less than three hours.
Patients were given atropine, a drug used to treat nerve gas poisoning.
The organisation said it “strongly indicated mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent” but stressed it could not “scientifically confirm” the use of chemical weapons.
Syrian state media has accused rebel forces of using chemical agents, claiming some government soldiers had suffocated as a result during fighting in the suburb of Jobar.
Information minister Omran Zoabi also warned the US and allies that military action would not be a “walk in the park”.
“If the US leads a military intervention, this will have dangerous consequences. It will bring chaos and the region will burn,” he said.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown has urged Mr Hague against rushing to condemn the attack before the UN experts had examined the area.
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said if the Prime Minister was considering military action against the regime he would expect him to recall Parliament to make his case before a decision was made.
A Downing Street source said an early recall had not been ruled out but insisted the timetable for any response by the international community was not yet clear.
The source also stressed that while the Prime Minister had promised MPs the ability to debate such issues, the Government “has to reserve the right to act immediately”.