Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary-general, on Friday accused Bashar al-Assad of committing crimes against humanity as he said a UN report next week would provide "overwhelming" confirmation that chemical weapons had been used in Syria.
Ban did not say that Syrian government forces had carried out the suspected chemical arms attack near Damascus last month that was investigated by UN experts, but chose to point out that the Syrian leader had "committed many crimes against humanity".
"Therefore, I'm sure that there will be surely the process of accountability when everything is over," he said, in remarks that will increase the pressure on the Syrian regime and could even hamper high-level negotiations. A UN team is expected to send its report on the Aug 21 attack to Ban on Monday. He stressed that he still did not have the report, but predicted: "I believe the report will be an overwhelming report that the chemical weapons were used."
He also gave a UN estimate that 1,400 people were killed in the attack at Ghouta, east of Damascus. The secretary-general apparently thought his speech to the Women's International Forum and response to questions were not being broadcast, but they were shown on UN television. The US, Britain and France blame the Syrian leader's forces for the attack.
Damascus, backed by Russia, say opposition rebels used a banned gas. In a report yesterday, Human Rights Watch accused Syrian government forces and pro-regime militias of carrying out mass killings of at least 248 people in two predominantly Sunni Muslim towns along the Mediterranean in May.
The New York-based group said its report on the killings in Bayda and Banias on May 2 and 3 was based on accounts of witnesses who saw or heard government and pro-government forces detain and then kill their relations. It said 167 people were killed in Bayda and 81 in Banias. The two towns are predominantly populated by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the revolt against Assad.
Meanwhile, Russia and the United States yesterday declared that a breakthrough on Syria's chemical weapons could revive attempts at ending the civil war, as the two sides sought to narrow their differences on the second day of talks. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said discussions with Russia about putting Syrian weapons under international control in order to avert US air strikes had been "constructive".
After a summit with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy, Kerry said the date for Geneva II - a much delayed peace conference on Syria - would be set at their next meeting on Sept 28 in New York.
"We are committed to trying to work together, beginning with this initiative on the chemical weapons, in hopes that those efforts could pay off and bring peace and stability to a war-torn part of the world," he said. He hoped a date might be set for peace talks, but added: "Much will depend on the capacity to have success here in the next hours, days, on the subject of the chemical weapons." Failure to secure Syria's chemical weapons would probably wreck the chances of securing the bigger prize of a broader settlement.
The difficulties posed by the negotiations were highlighted by reports that a secretive military unit had dispersed the estimated 1,000 tons of nerve and biological agents such as VX, mustard gas and sarin possessed by the regime around as many as 50 sites. US officials told the Wall Street Journal that Unit 450 had ordered the removal of stocks from several large facilities in the west of the country, to smaller ones in order to evade detection.
Meetings between experts from both sides were heading last night for a third day, as they tried to work out safe ways of disposing of Syria's biological arsenal. "We would both agree that we had constructive conversations regarding that, but those conversations are continuing," Kerry said.
Experts believe any effort to secure chemical weapons in a war zone would be enormously expensive and could take several years. "It will be very costly, these are cheaper to make than destroy," said Dieter Rothbacher, a director of Hotzone Solutions and former chemical weapons inspector in Iraq. The French presidency announced that the US, French and British foreign ministers would meet in Paris on Monday for talks on Syria.