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U.S., Russia split on disputed chemical weapons strike in Syria

March 19, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell
  • Hospital medics help men on stretchers after what was claimed to be a chemical weapons attack in Aleppo. Each side blamed the other for the incident that killed at least 25 people and left scores of others injured.
Hospital medics help men on stretchers after what was claimed to be a chemical… (SANA / European Pressphoto…)

BEIRUT -- The United States and Russia stood behind their respective allies Tuesday as each side in the Syrian conflict accused the other of launching a devastating chemical attack outside the northern city of Aleppo.

Washington has backed the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Moscow has long resisted opposition efforts to topple Assad, its longtime ally.

The chasm between the two world powers was again readily apparent after conflicting accounts emerged about the alleged deployment  of  chemical weapons.

U.S. officials flatly rejected the official Syrian version that rebels launched a chemically armed rocket that killed 25 and injured 110, the latter including  many in critical condition. However, Washington did not rule out the possibility that the government may have launched such a strike and tried to blame it on the opposition.

The State Department said it had no indication that the Syrian rebels possessed chemical weapons. The Syrian government, by contrast, is widely believed to hold substantial chemical  stockpiles. Damascus has never directly acknowledged possession of chemical weapons.

 U.S. authorities suggested that the government allegations were designed to smear  the armed opposition and distract attention from official  atrocities.

“We’ve been concerned that the regime, in failing to achieve its military objectives even by the most barbaric conventional means, may get desperate enough to use these weapons,” U.S. State Department  spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington.

However, U.S. officials stopped short of endorsing rebel allegations that the Syrian military had unleashed a chemical strike. The issue was being investigated,  officials said.

“We are looking carefully at the information as it comes in,” White House spokesman  Jay Carney told reporters.

President Obama has warned the Syrian government that any use of chemical weapons -- or a transfer of stockpiles to other powers -- is  a “red line” that could trigger a U.S. response.

In Moscow, Russian officials wholeheartedly endorsed Damascus’ charge that the rebels had unleashed a chemical attack outside Aleppo. The Foreign Ministry labeled the episode an “extremely alarming and dangerous development.”

--Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Beirut and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.

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