DAMASCUS - UN inspectors returned to Syria Wednesday to pursue a probe into alleged poison gas attacks, as Russia and the West wrangled over how to eliminate President Bashar al-Assad’s banned chemical weapons.
The group, led by chief expert Ake Sellstrom, flew to Beirut in Lebanon and travelled by overland convoy via the Masnaa border post to Damascus.
US President Barack Obama on Tuesday demanded tough Security Council action against Syria as the conflict there dominated debate at the annual UN General Assembly.
Further complicating the situation for the international community, 13 key Syrian Islamist groups said they did not recognise any foreign-based opposition group, including the main Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition.
The groups include members of the main rebel Free Syrian Army and more radical Islamists such as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.
Sellstrom’s inspectors are expected to examine the alleged use of chemical weapons some 14 times in the 30-month conflict that is estimated to have killed more than 110,000 people.
After a preliminary visit last month, his team concluded in a report presented on September 16 that banned chemical weapons had been widely used in fighting between Assad’s regime and rebel forces. There was clear evidence that sarin gas was used in an attack in the Eastern Ghouta neighbourhood near Damascus on August 21, the report said.
Sellstrom pointed out that the report was only an interim document, and that other allegations needed to be examined. “There have been other accusations presented to the UN secretary general, dating back to March, against both sides” in the war, he told AFP earlier this month. There were “13, 14 accusations” that “have to be investigated”. Sellstrom said the team hoped to be able to present a final report addressing all of the accusations “possibly by the end of October”.
Last month’s attack, which the Syrian opposition and some parts of the international community blame on the regime, prompted Washington to threaten military action against Damascus.
Assad’s government denies using chemical weapons against its own people, and has agreed to a US-Russian plan that will see it deliver its chemical arsenal for destruction.
The deal headed off US military action, but Damascus ally Russia is still wrangling with Britain, France and the United States over the wording of a UN resolution enshrining the accord.
Meanwhile, more than 100 senior officers of the Free Syrian Army have signed a petition urging a boycott of any peace conference on their country if Iran is involved, an opposition general said Wednesday.
The statement “condemned once more the criminal regime of Assad and any conference which will open any path other than the toppling of the regime.”
It accused Tehran, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, of being a “serious part of the problem,” and added that it “should not be involved in any way in any conference on Syria.”
The officers sought a “boycott of any conference or discussion which involves Iran in one way or the other.”
The statement came after French President Francois Hollande, who has demanded “coercive” UN measures against Syria if it does not hand over its chemical weapons, said Iran was welcome to attend an international peace initiative on Syria, dubbed Geneva-2, if it helped in a political transition in Syria.
Meanwhile, a Syrian man was killed and two others wounded when Lebanese troops opened fire on their minibus on Wednesday after it failed to stop at a checkpoint, the army said.
“At 4:45am (0145 GMT), the driver of a minibus carrying Syrian passengers... failed to comply with orders from the Lebanese army to stop at a checkpoint in the Arsal region, forcing the soldiers to open fire,” the army said in a statement.
“One passenger was killed and two others were lightly injured,” the statement said, adding that the bus had continued on despite the shooting but the driver later turned himself in.