UK

Syria Chemical Weapons Attack: Russia Joins Call For UN Investigation, As Hague Warns Time Is Short

23/08/2013 11:59 BST | Updated 23/08/2013 12:53 BST

Demands for an urgent United Nations inquiry into a catastrophic chemical weapons attack, believed to have left 1,300 dead in Syria, have gathered steam, with one of President's Assad's closest allies calling for the atrocity to be probed.

The UK Foreign Office and the Russian government, which was a key supporter of the Assad regime, have called on Syria to urgently allow UN weapons inspectors to examine the eastern Ghouta site of the deadliest attack of the two-year conflict, on the outskirts of Damascus.

William Hague has warned "time is of the essence" as he prepared to hold emergency talks with key international figures, including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Qatar's foreign minister over the chemical attack.

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Footage emerged apparently showing the aftermath of the attack

He wrote on Twitter:

As the pictures emerged of victims with white faces, foaming mouths and limp limbs, the Government razed the area of the alleged attack with targeted airstrikes, further complicating any inspections that UN officials could conduct.

The Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group in exile, put the number at 1,300. The group said it was basing its claim on accounts and photographs by activists on the ground.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has also called for an independent investigation, and said that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Kerry had had a telephone discussion to that effect. Russia has been one of Assad's key allies in the international arena, and has repeatedly defended blocking resolutions against Syria at the UN security council.

Mr Lavrov and his US counterpart agreed they had a "mutual interest" in calling for the UN investigation during a telephone conversation, a statement released by the Russian interior ministry said.

The statement from the ministry added that there were concerns that Syria rebel groups would also try to bar weapons inspectors from visiting the site, according to AP, saying the onus was on them.

A 20-strong UN team, led by Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom, has been in Damascus since Sunday to investigate three other sites where chemical weapons attacks allegedly occurred in the past, AP reported.

France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, on Thursday raised the possibility of the international community using force in Syria if it is proven that Assad's regime used chemical weapons.

In an interview with RMC radio, Fabius excluded boots on the ground, but continued "I don't want to be more precise, but force is an option that we have."

The Assad government has furiously denied it has used chemical weapons, with the deputy prime minister blaming foreign rebel forces for the attack.

The number of Syrian children forced to flee their devastated homeland will on Friday reach a million, half of all the refugees driven abroad by the conflict, the United Nations said in a statement.

Another two million young Syrians have been uprooted, but remain within their country and are often recruited as fighters, violating international law against child soldiers, UNHCR and UNICEF said.