Syria’s main opposition group demanded Wednesday a full international investigation into an alleged chemical weapons attack in the country’s north, calling for a team to be sent to the village where it reportedly occurred.
Also Wednesday, President Bashar Assad made a rare public appearance when he visited a fine arts school in Damascus and met the parents of students who were killed in the country’s civil war, state TV reported.
The Syrian National Coalition blamed Assad’s forces for the missile attack in the village of Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province. The group’s call for an international investigation came a day after the regime and rebels traded accusations about the purported chemical attack.
“Chemical warfare is internationally prohibited. Its use against any enemy is banned, however all evidence now indicates that the Assad regime is using these weapons against its own people,” the opposition coalition said. It called for those behind the alleged attack to be put on trial.
The use of such weapons would be a nightmare scenario in the 2-year-old conflict that has killed an estimated 70,000 people, and the competing claims show a willingness by both sides to go to new levels to seek support from world powers.
A senior Israeli official said Wednesday it is “apparently clear” that chemical weapons were recently used in Syria, either by the rebels or by the government. Yuval Steinitz, the newly appointed minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, did not say how he came to the conclusion that the weapons were used.
Speaking to Army Radio, he said it will be a main topic in talks with visiting President Barak Obama who began a visit to Israel on Wednesday. Israel has long expressed concerns that Syria’s chemical stockpile could reach militant groups like Hezbollah or al-Qaida-inspired organizations.
In Iran, Assad’s strongest ally in the region, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast has condemned the alleged use of chemical weapons by “armed opposition groups,” calling it “an inhuman act.”
“Undoubtedly, the responsibilities of a repetition of such crimes would fall on those committing it and the countries that support them,” he was quoted by state TV as saying,
He was apparently referring to Persian Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia that strongly back the rebels.
Syria’s state-run Al-Baath newspaper blamed Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist group that has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and is said to be linked to al-Qaida. It said the attack was done with “the funds of Gulf countries, the facilitations of the new Ottomans (Turkey) and under the sponsorship of America, France and Britain.”
It said countries backing the rebels bore indirect responsibility for the alleged attack and said the use of chemical weapons changes the “rules” of the conflict.
In Jordan, the king warned Wednesday that a jihadist state could emerge on his northern border in Syria with Islamic extremists trying to establish a foothold in the neighboring country.
King Abdullah II told The Associated Press in an interview that in his view, Assad was beyond rehabilitation and it was only a matter of time before his authoritarian regime collapses.
“The most worrying factors in the Syrian conflict are the issues of chemical weapons, the steady flow or sudden surge in refugees and a jihadist state emerging out of the conflict,” the king said.
Activists reported violence around the country including clashes in Khan al-Assal where the chemical attack reportedly occurred, suburbs of the capital and near the Damascus Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. The Aleppo Media Center, an opposition media arm, said rebels shot down a regime warplane in the northern province of Raqqa, whose provincial capital fell in the hands of rebels earlier this month.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops were trying to storm the rebel-held neighborhood of Khaldiyeh in the central city of Homs, Syria’s third-largest. Rebels have been holding the neighborhood for more than a year.
In Lebanon, the state-run National News Agency said five rockets fell on the Lebanese side of the border in the town of al-Qasr. It said there were no casualties.
The rockets fell two days after the NNA said Syrian warplanes hit targets along Syria’s border with Lebanon. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman strongly condemned the air raid while the Foreign Ministry in Damascus denied Syrian aircraft bombarded Lebanon.
Photos run by the state Syrian media meanwhile showed Assad at the fine arts school shaking hands and listening closely to people who were reported to be parents of war victims. It did not quite him as saying anything. It was his first appearance outside his palace since January, when he delivered a speech in the Opera House in the capital.
In another photo, people showed Assad a poster with pictures of students reported to have died. They pointed to their loved ones as he watched closely.