U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has sent a message to the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad urging him not to use chemical weapons in the country’s escalating conflict, the U.N. press office said on Thursday.
In a readout of a telephone call Ban had with Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the U.N. press office said the U.N. chief told Uzumcu that “any use of such weapons would be an outrageous crime with dire consequences.”
“The Secretary-General informed (Uzumcu) that he has written again to President al-Assad urging him to refrain from the use of any such weapons under any circumstances and underscoring the fundamental responsibility of the Syrian government to ensure the safety and security of any such stockpiles,” it said.
At least 42,000 people have been killed in violence since an uprising broke out against the rule of Assad in March last year, a monitoring group said on Thursday.
“At least 29,455 civilians have been killed, as have 1,426 troops who defected to the opposition and 10,551 soldiers,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
“An additional 652 people whose identity we have been unable to identify have been killed in the conflict,” Abdel Rahman said. “A total of 42,084 people have died in the past 21 months.”
The conflict started as a peaceful protest movement but escalated into an armed rebellion when the authorities used deadly force against demonstrators.
The Observatory counts non-army combatants who have taken up arms against the regime as civilians.
“When the crisis comes to an end, it is likely that we will find many more have been killed, because many thousands are missing in Syria’s jails,” Abdel Rahman said.
In addition, neither the army nor the rebels are willing to reveal their full casualty lists, he said. “That is part of their propaganda war.”
The United States has seen intelligence raising serious concerns that Assad’s government is considering using chemical weapons, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday without elaborating on the nature of that intelligence.
“I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned that as the opposition advances - in particular on Damascus - that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons,” Panetta told reporters in Washington.
“The intelligence that we have raises serious concerns that this is being considered.”
Several Western countries have issued coordinated warnings this week to Assad’s government not to use chemical weapons, many citing secret intelligence that U.S. officials have said showed Assad’s government might be preparing to use poison gas.
U.S. President Barack Obama has warned of consequences should Assad use the weapons, with the White House citing “contingency planning” when asked about the possibility of military intervention.
Panetta restated Obama’s warning of consequences for Assad on Thursday, adding: “I’m not going to speculate or comment on what those potential consequences would be.”
“But I think it’s fair enough to say that their use of those weapons would cross a red line for us,” he said.