UN to launch Syria chemical weapons inquiry

The United Nations will launch an independent investigation into whether chemical weapons have been used in the Syria conflict, UN leader Ban Ki-Moon said Thursday.

Ban said the "difficult mission" would focus on a Syrian government allegation that opposition rebels fired chemical weapons missiles in an attack this week.

But France, Britain and the United States called on Ban to widen the inquiry to include allegations made against President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

The Syrian government has accused opposition rebels of using chemical weapons in an attack at Khan al-Assal near Aleppo on Tuesday. The opposition said the government staged the attack and also used banned chemical weapons in another incident near Damascus.

"I have decided to conduct a United Nations investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria," Ban told reporters in his office.

"I intend for this investigation to start as soon as practically possible," he added.

The UN leadership is working with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the World Health Organisation to set up the inquiry.

"The investigation mission is to look into the specific incident brought to my attention by the Syrian government," he said.

"I am, of course, aware that there are other allegations of similar cases involving the reported use of chemical weapons." Ban would not take questions on whether the inquiry could be extended.

"In discharging its mandate of an investigation mission, full cooperation from all parties will be essential. I stress that this includes unfettered access," Ban insisted.

"My announcement should serve as an unequivocal reminder that the use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity," said Ban. "The international community needs full assurance that chemical weapons stockpiles are verifiably safeguarded."

Diplomats and UN officials have stressed that still no formal proof has been given that chemical weapons were used by either side.

Britain and France sent a letter to Ban calling for a wider inquiry that includes accusations that chemical weapons were also used at Ataybah near Damascus and another incident at Homs on December 23.

"Given the gravity of these allegations, we judge it essential that all the pertinent facts concerning these allegations are swiftly investigated."

The letter sent by the French and British missions to the UN called for "an urgent investigation into all allegations".

US ambassador Susan Rice said the United States also "supports an investigation that pursues any and all credible allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria."

"We demand the full cooperation of the Assad regime in particular, as well as Syrian authorities throughout the country, including by providing full and unfettered access to all relevant individuals and locations," Rice said in a statement.

The Security Council is bitterly divided over the Syria war and Russia has insisted that the inquiry should be limited to the Syrian government allegation.

Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin welcomed the announcement made by Ban calling it "a very good, courageous decision."

Russia and China have blocked three western-proposed UN resolutions that would have stepped up pressure on Assad over the conflict in which the UN says well over 70,000 people have died.

Ban said "the horrors" of recent months "prove beyond doubt: the military solution in Syria is leading to the dissolution of Syria."

He made a new call for the international powers to unite and support the efforts of UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to reach a political settlement.