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Updated: Wed, 28 Aug 2013 14:02:43 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Syria chemical attack killed hundreds, UN envoy says



Syria chemical attack killed hundreds, UN envoy says

The UN says a toxic "substance" deployed last week during an assault in Syria killed hundreds and "maybe more than 1,000 people," supporting growing international claims that chemicals were used in an attack near Damascus.

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UN special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi made the comment Wednesday, amid ramped-up rhetoric from Western allies for building military action against Syria.

The source of the purported chemical attack has not been confirmed and UN inspectors in Syria are only mandated to collect evidence of chemical use, not to determine who is behind it.

The Arab League as well as Western powers have held President Bashar al-Assad's forces responsible for the alleged chemical weapons assault on Aug. 21, but Assad has denied the allegations.

Brahimi said one thing that's certain is that "hundreds" and "maybe more than 1,000 people" died in an attack in the outskirts of the capital.

"It does seem that some kind of substance was used that killed a lot of people," he said, adding "this confirms how dangerous the situation in Syria is."

Syrian ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja'afari again rejected "baseless accusations" of chemical weapons use by his country's government. He told reporters Wednesday that he has information about an alleged rebel attack in which deadly sarin gas was used against Assad's troops.

Ja'afari said he brought a letter from the regime requesting that UN weapons inspectors "immediately" turn their attention towards investigating "three heinous incidents" of alleged chemical attacks against government forces on Aug. 22, 23 and 24.

"Dozens of Syrian soldiers are currently treated in the Syrian hospitals due to this use of chemical agents by the terrorist armed groups operating in the countryside of Damascus," he said.

Asked how he believes rebel fighters might have obtained chemical weapons, he said he believes ingredients for the production of toxic agents were smuggled in from outside Syria.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the special team tasked with investigating possible chemical warfare in Damascus will need at least four more days to collect the evidence they need.

The team's first field testing began in the western suburb of Moadamiyeh on Monday. The journey was delayed by sniper fire, though the team was unharmed. On Wednesday, the UN's convoy of seven SUVs again left a hotel in central Damascus to resume inspections.

According to anti-regime activists, the inspectors made their way this time to the Damascus suburb of Eastern Gout, which was affected by the alleged chemical attack.

Inspectors have not accused rebel fighters or government troops of using chemical weapons.

To Western powers such as Britain and the U.S., however, there's little doubt that the Syrian government is the only side capable of launching a chemical attack.

Asked by reporters about a possible U.S.-led strike on Syrian government targets, Brahimi reiterated that any military action must have approval from the UN Security Council.

Obama 'not known to be trigger-happy'

"I do know that … Obama and the American administration are not known to be trigger-happy," he said. "What they would decide, I don't know, but certainly international law is very clear — the Security Council has to be brought in."

Britain reinforced its stand on the situation Wednesday, with its National Security Council unanimously backing action against the regime.

Britain on Wednesday put forward a draft resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN charter that seeks a measure "authorizing necessary measures to protect civilians." Military force was one of the options that would be authorized.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council met to discuss the resolution, which is almost certainly doomed to fail if put to a vote, as it would likely be vetoed by Syria's allies — Russia and China.

A diplomat close to the conversations but speaking on condition of anonymity said that after two hours of talks, the draft resolution was being sent back to the members' respective governments for consultations.

According to the diplomat, Russia again expressed disapproval for military intervention in Syria, reasoning that UN inspectors are still on the ground there and have not brought back conclusive evidence pointing to Assad's regime as the perpretrators of a chemical attack.

The White House has characterized the UN inspections as "redundant" and claims to have its own intelligence showing chemical weapons were used by Syrian military forces against innocent civilians.

Russia, however, has said that threats of a military strike against Syria are premature, as UN inspectors are continuing their work.

Although the Arab League has condemned the Syrian government, it has not offered regional support to a retaliatory military strike.

Jordan's information minister said Wednesday his government "will not be a launching pad for any military action against Syria" and favours a diplomatic solution.

Poland has taken the same position, with Prime Minister Donald Tusk saying it will not participate "in any kind of intervention" in Syria.

Canada says alleged chemical use an 'outrage'

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has called the alleged chemical attack an "outrage" and Prime Minister Stephen Harper is conferring closely with U.S. President Barack Obama as the Syrian situation escalates.

Baird is scheduled to meet later Wednesday with Syrian National Council president George Sabra, who is in Ottawa. It's expected he'll get a direct appeal from Sabra for Canada to intervene and help the anti-Assad forces.

On Tuesday, Baird met with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to brief them on developments in Damascus.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trudeau said he would be happy to see Parliament recalled in order to discuss Canada's possible role in Syria.

"All the parliamentarians are united in our horror and our desire to help," he said. "Humanitarian aid, greater help in terms of refugees — these are things that Canada can do and the Canadians are united and wanting to do."

With files from Reuters, The Associated Press

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