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Russia Defends Syria Amid Chemical Weapons Allegations


The latest reports of chemical weapon attacks in Syria set off a tense debate in the United Nation Security Council. It met this afternoon in an urgent session. The U.N. has long been divided over how to deal with Syria. The United States and its partners are calling for a full investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons, but Russia is casting doubts on the allegations and is defending the Syrian government's position.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has our story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: British Foreign Secretary William Hague is sounding the alarm about the new allegations, saying he hopes supporters of the Assad regime will wake up and realize its murderous and barbaric nature.

WILLIAM HAGUE: If verified, this would be a shocking escalation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. We are determined the people responsible will one day be held to account.

KELEMEN: He and his French counterpart are calling on Syria to give a U.N. inspection team access to the sites of the alleged chemical weapons attack. White House spokesman Josh Earnest is also making that case, saying the U.S. does not have independent verification of the reports.

JOSH EARNEST: Fortunately, we have credible, professional investigators with the United Nations on the ground in Syria right now. Let's give them the opportunity to take a look at what happened. Let's give them the opportunity to interview witnesses. Let's give them the opportunity to collect some physical evidence and then we can reach a conclusion about what exactly happened there.

KELEMEN: The White House calls the use of chemical weapons totally deplorable and completely unacceptable. A U.N. spokesman, Eduardo Del Buey, says the team on the ground in Damascus is discussing the new allegations with the government of Syria. He says U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon was shocked to hear the news of the alleged chemical weapons attack.

EDUARDO DEL BUEY: The secretary-general reiterates that any use of chemical weapons by any side under any circumstances would violate international law.

KELEMEN: But the U.N. team has a limited mandate. The investigators are there to report on whether and what kind of chemicals have been used in three previously reported incidents. They're not there to determine who's to blame. And Russia, a permanent U.N. Security Council member, is suggesting that the rebels might have staged the latest assault to provoke an international response.

In a statement on the Russian foreign ministry website, spokesman Alexander Lukashevich says there are indications that the chemical attack came from an area controlled by the opposition.

ALEXANDER LUKASHEVICH: (Speaking foreign language)

KELEMEN: All this cannot but suggest that, once again, we're dealing with a preplanned provocation, he says, pointing out that it comes at the very moment when the U.N. team had successfully started its work. That's the usual Russian line, says Mona Yacoubian, a Syrian expert at the Stimson Center here in Washington.

MONA YACOUBIAN: This is really nothing different from what the Russians have been doing all along. Their primary goal is to insulate Syria from any sort of international intervention.

KELEMEN: But Russia did call for a credible investigation, she points out. And given the scale of the latest alleged attacks, it will be impossible for the U.N. team to ignore.

YACOUBIAN: The U.N. team, frankly, is going to be put in a very difficult position if no action is taken. And there they are in a five-star hotel, literally, you know, a half an hour car drive from where these attacks took place.

KELEMEN: Yacoubian doesn't have high hopes that Syria will give the team full or quick access to the site, though she says how Damascus responds will be telling. The Obama administration says Syria should help facilitate the investigation, if it has nothing to hide. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.