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France says Syria used chlorine in 14 recent attacks

Source: Reuters - Tue, 13 May 2014 23:36 GMT
Author: Reuters
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A Free Syrian Army fighter runs to avoid snipers in Aleppo May 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hebbo
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(Adds Kerry and State Department comment)

By Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON, May 13 (Reuters) - Syria may have used chemical weapons involving chlorine in 14 attacks in recent months, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday, expressing concerns that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is hiding toxic weapons.

"We have at least 14 indications that show us that, in the past recent weeks again, chemical weapons in a smaller scale have been used, in particular chlorine," Fabius told a news conference through an interpreter. "Right now we are examining the samples that were taken."

Fabius made the comments during a visit to Washington where he discussed the crises in Syria and Ukraine with his American counterpart John Kerry.

Fabius said the Assad government had handed over 92 percent of its chemical weapons stockpile under an international agreement overseen by the watchdog Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

But France believed the Assad government was hiding some of the stockpiles and the reports involving chlorine gas attacks indicated he still had the ability to produce chemical weapons.

"What it shows is that (the) Bashar al-Assad regime in spite of its commitment continues to be able to produce chemical weapons and to use them," Fabius said.

He pointed at France's efforts within the United Nations to refer the three-year-old civil war in Syria to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The 15-member council is due to meet on Wednesday to discuss the draft and it could be voted on within days, diplomats said. But Russia, a veto-wielding council member and ally of Assad, has made clear it is against such a move.

The OPCW is considering a fact-finding mission on its own to investigate the reports of chlorine gas attacks, sources told Reuters last month.

Syria has promised to hand over or destroy its entire arsenal, although it still has roughly 7.5 percent of the chemicals it declared to the OPCW and has not yet destroyed a dozen production and storage facilities.

Speaking alongside his Italian counterpart at the State Department, Kerry later said the international community needed to insist that Syria fully comply with its commitment to dismantle its entire stockpile.

"We will remain vigilant until this is achieved," Kerry added.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a daily briefing that the United States would support any effort to investigate allegations of chlorine attacks by the Syrian government.

But Psaki said the United States believed the removal to date of 92 percent of Assad's stockpile was a "significant step".

"Clearly the removal of 92 percent of declared chemical weapons in Syria is a step that we think is an important step forward, and one that we continue to stand by as the right step and the right process we took last September," she added. (Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Sandra Maler and Andre Grenon)

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