Syria's foreign minister has told the UN that "terrorists" were behind a chemical weapons attack last month. Inspectors, meanwhile, have left Damascus as a disarmament team prepares to head in.
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem complained of what he described as "blatant" international aggression against his country. He also ruled out any preconditions for internationally brokered peace talks with the opposition.
"There is no civil war in Syria, but it is a war against terror," al-Moallem said. "Terrorists who used poisonous gases in my country have received chemical agents from regional and Western countries that are well known to all of us," he added.
UN inspectors have confirmed that chemical weapons have been used during Syria's conflict. This includes August 21 attacks in suburbs of Damascus involving the nerve gas sarin. UN inspectors confirmed that the gas had been used but were not tasked with apportioning blame. US officials, though, say more than 1,400 people were killed in those attacks, and Washington subsequently threatened military action against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The government denied the allegations, but agreed to relinquish its chemical arsenal to head off a strike under a US-Russian deal enshrined last Friday in a UN Security Council resolution.
'We will comply'
A team of inspectors from The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrived in Beirut on Monday, a day before heading to Syria to oversee the implementation of the terms of the Security Council resolution. Frequent fighting around Damascus' airport has forced the team to travel in to Syria via land from Lebanon. As those inspectors are set to arrive, a team of UN chemical weapons experts - on their second mission to Syria to investigate seven alleged attacks over the course of 2013 so far - left Damascus on Monday afternoon and crossed into Lebanon.
Assad has said that Syria will comply with the UN resolution, under which his regime must turn over its chemical weapons for destruction. Experts believe that Assad's regime has an arsenal that includes more than 1,000 tons of sarin, mustard gas and other banned chemicals stored at an estimated 45 sites across the country. The UN and the OPCW have launched an urgent appeal for experts to join the mission to destroy the weapons by a target date of mid-2014.
German chemical deliveries
Also on Monday, the German government admited that it had approved the export of "dual-use" chemicals to Syria as recently as 2011 and in larger quantities than previously known. The chemicals are classified as dual-use because they can be used for both peaceful civilian and military purposes.
A statement released by the Economics Ministry in Berlin said German firms had shipped a total of 360 tons of chemicals to Syria between 1998 and 2011. However, it said there was no evidence that any of the chemicals had been used in weapons.
"After a comprehensive review of all available information, it can be assumed that the goods were used for civilian purposes by private industry," it said in a statement.
Previously, the Economics Ministry had acknowledged that exporters shipped 134 tons between 2002 and 2006.
mkg/pfd (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)