Russia questions Western claims on Syria attack
Russia on Friday questioned Western claims the Syrian regime may have carried out a chemical weapons attack and branded as "unacceptable" calls to consider using force against Bashar al-Assad's regime.
With European officials pointing the finger at Assad over Wednesday's alleged attacks, the Russian foreign ministry took a different line, saying the incident appeared to have been "provocative in nature".
While Russia was "encouraging" the Syrian government to cooperate with UN experts to investigate the attack, the ministry said it was the anti-Assad rebels who were preventing the team from safely accessing the area.
Russia and the West have been at loggerheads throughout the two-and-a-half-year Syrian conflict, with Moscow refusing to abandon its support of the Assad regime and accusing the West of openly siding with the rebels.
"Against the background of another anti-Syrian wave of propaganda, we believe calls from some European countries to apply pressure on the UN Security Council and already now take a decision on the use of force are unacceptable," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Russia has veto power on the UN Security Council and has previously blocked sanctions against the Damascus regime.
The Syrian opposition claimed that hundreds of people had been killed in gas attacks by regime forces on rebel areas near Damascus, but Syria has denied this.
Harrowing footage distributed by activists showed unconscious children, people foaming around the mouth and doctors apparently giving them oxygen to help them breathe.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday that Paris would be seeking a reaction with "force" if the use of chemical weapons was confirmed while President Francois Hollande denounced the "likely" use of such arms in Syria.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday his government believes Assad's regime is responsible for the alleged chemical weapons attack "but we would like the United Nations to be able to assess that".
But Russia strongly questioned these claims, saying Internet footage said to implicate the regime had been posted "several hours before the so-called attack".
"Evidence is mounting that the criminal action was clearly provocative in nature... We are talking about an action already planned in advance."
Reports of the alleged gas attack near Damascus came as a UN expert team visited Syria to investigate previous claims of the use of chemical weapons.
Russia, seen as Assad's last remaining major ally, said it was in "constant contact" with the Syrian government over the issue.
"We are encouraging it (the government) to cooperate constructively" with the UN team.
But the statement also praised a "constructive approach" by the Syrian government towards cooperation with the United Nations.
By contrast, the foreign ministry criticised the Syrian opposition which it said was not showing readiness "to ensure the security and effective work of the UN experts" at the site of the alleged attack.
"This is directly preventing an objective investigation of the claims of the possible use of chemical weapons," it said.
It said those countries with sway over the opposition should undertake "necessary steps" to ensure that the UN experts can carry out their work.
According to Russia, the location of the alleged attack "is territory under rebel control".
The foreign ministry said earlier that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his US counterpart John Kerry had agreed in a phone call on Thursday on the need for an "objective investigation" into the incident.
Lavrov told Kerry that immediately after the reports first emerged about the attack, the "Russian side called on the Syrian government to cooperate with the UN chemical experts," the ministry said.
© 2013 AFP