Britain says concerned about chemical weapons in Syria

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Britain is “increasingly concerned” about the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday, warning that “the world is watching.”

Speaking in the House of Commons, Hague also said Britain and France would continue to press for a lifting of the EU embargo blocking the delivery of weapons to the Syrian opposition despite one rebel group's pledge of allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

“The UK is increasingly concerned that there is evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. These allegations must be fully and urgently investigated,” Hague told lawmakers during an update on last week's G8 ministerial meeting in London.

“We welcome the UN secretary general’s announcement of an investigation into the allegations and again call on the Syrian regime to cooperate fully and allow the investigation unfettered access to all areas.

“They should take heed that the world is watching and those who order the use of chemical weapons or participate in their use must be held to account.”

Hague refused to comment on media reports that British military scientists who have analysed soil samples smuggled out of Syria have found forensic evidence that chemical weapons have been used.

Addressing the issue of support for the opposition forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Hague stressed that Britain had taken no decision to arm the rebels but continued to work with France to lift the EU embargo.

“The UK and France argue that we will need further amendments to the EU arms embargo or even to lift it altogether,” Hague said.

“As things stand we need greater flexibility if we decide urgent action is necessary, for example in response to a specific incident, or continued grave deterioration on the ground, or to create the conditions for a successful political transition.”

He acknowledged concerns that weapons could fall into the wrong hands, which were amplified by last week’s announcement by the Al-Nusra Front that it was pledging allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

“If we were to take that step we would have to assure ourselves to the maximum degree possible not only the international legal position but that they could not be misused by other people for whom they were not intended,” he said.

The foreign secretary said extremists represented a small minority of rebels in Syria, but “the longer this (conflict) goes on, the greater the risk they will gain more support.”

“We have to take that seriously and that is why we argue we have to give more practical support to the moderate democratic opposition so that the focus of opposition in Syria does not become those more extreme groups,” he said.

Hague said he would be discussing arming the rebels with ministers at the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul on Saturday and with EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday.