Syrian government invites UN for chemical weapons inspection

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Syria's government has invited the UN's chemical weapons inspector into the country to arrange for an expert team to examine whether deadly substances have been used during the civil war.

Bashar Ja'afari, Syria's ambassador to the UN, told reporters at UN headquarters in New York Monday that the government of Bashar Assad had reached out to inspectors Ake Sellstrom and Angela Kane as part of a fact-finding mission that has been denied access to the country for months since reports surfaced of the use of chemical weapons in Khan Al-Asal near Aleppo.

Angela Kane is the UN's High Representative for Disarmament Affairs and Sellstrom is head of the Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic.

The pair has been approved to meet Syrian officials in Damascus, but it was unclear when that would happen.

Sellstrom's 15-member team, which has an advance team in Cyprus, had been blocked from entering since soon after March 19, the day of one of the alleged incidents and when the Syrian government called for a UN investigation into allegations of the use of chemical weapons.

Ja'afari reiterated Monday that his government has not used chemical weapons on its own people, adding, however, that 281 barrels of chemical materials were found Sunday among the stockpiles of rebel forces.

"The Syrian authorities have discovered yesterday in the city of Banias 281 barrels filled with dangerous, hazardous chemical materials," he said, adding that the chemicals were "capable of destroying a whole city, if not the whole country."

He has also said that the government had collected evidence that could help prove that chemical weapons had been used in the March 19 incident.

But the probe that Syria called for, and for which Sellstrom was appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, came to an abrupt halt when two other nations, France and Great Britain, requested that the team also investigate allegations that government forces had used chemical weapons in other instances in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus since last December.

The Syrian government wanted the inspection to be limited to the March 19 incident, Ja'afari said recently.

It was unclear whether Syrian leaders would allow the inspection team access to the other sites now.

But UN officials said any access was a positive development in the protracted war that has led to the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people since the conflict broke out in March 2011, following a government crackdown during peaceful Arab Spring protests.

Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said it was a "move in the right direction" after Ja'afari's announcement outside the Security Council chamber.

"The Secretary-General hopes that Syria will grant access to the Mission to conduct its comprehensive on-site investigation," Ban said in a statement. "Cooperation from Syria in this regard will be essential for the Mission to establish facts in a credible manner regarding any use of chemical weapons in Syria."

U.S. officials were less enthusiastic.

"I just want to say in my national capacity, you know the views that we have espoused on this issue, that we are calling on the Syrian government to allow Mr. Sellström and his team to enter Syria and to investigate any and all credible allegations of possible use of chemical weapons," said Rosemary DiCarlo, acting U.S. ambassador to the UN.

The development comes as UN, Russian and U.S. officials plan a conference in Geneva to bring a diplomatic end to the war.

The conference, organized by the UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who replaced former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as a broker appointed to resolve the conflict, was planned for July, but may not occur until at least August, officials said.

British UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said last week that the conference was postponed again because the monthlong observance of Ramadan will not end until early August.

Syria is rejecting the idea of a cease-fire with the rebel opposition during the holy month of Ramadan.

"We need a full end of violence, not a partial one," Ja'afari said Monday. He added that the Syrian rebels would have to be fully engaged in the peace talks and commit to a U.S.-Russian sponsored round of talks in Geneva.

The Syrian National Coalition said recently it will not attend the Geneva talks unless they are about President Bashar Assad handing over power, The Associated Press reported.

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