PARIS - France has ‘information’ but no firm proof that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime is still using chemical weapons, President Francois Hollande said Sunday.
‘We have a few elements of information but I do not have the proof,’ Hollande said in a radio interview after he was asked about reports that Assad was currently using chemical weapons. ‘What I do know is what we have seen from this regime is the horrific methods it is capable of using and the rejection of any political transition,’ he told the Europe 1 radio station.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the same radio station there were ‘indications, which have yet to be verified, that there have been recent chemical attacks’. He said they were ‘much less significant than those in Damascus a few months ago but very deadly’, and had taken place in the northwest of the country, near the Lebanese border. A French source close to the matter told AFP that the reports ‘had come from different sources, including the Syrian opposition’.
There are conflicting accounts about one attack that happened in the town of Kafr Zita in the central Hama province earlier in April, with both the government and the opposition accusing each other of being responsible. Activists in the area accused the regime of using chlorine gas, saying it caused ‘more than 100 cases of suffocation’. Videos circulated by opposition activists on YouTube showed men and children in a field hospital coughing and showing symptoms of suffocation.
But state television blamed the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, a key force in Syria's three-year armed revolt, for the attack, which it said had lead to the death of two people and caused more than 100 to suffer from suffocation. Under the terms of the US-Russia brokered deal reached last year, Syria has until the end of June to destroy its chemical weapon stockpile if it wants to ward off the threat of US air strikes. The agreement was reached after a deadly chemical attack outside Damascus last August that the West blamed on Assad's regime.
Last week the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the global chemical watchdog, said Syria had surrendered almost two-thirds of its chemical weapons, including many priority chemicals. Damascus had halted exports temporarily, citing security concerns, but restarted transfers earlier in April.
Speaking on April 14 after Syria had completed its latest shipment, the OPCW chief Ahmed Uzumcu said ‘both the frequency and the volumes of deliveries have to increase significantly’ if the deadline was to be met. Norwegian as well as Danish naval vessels are involved in the process of removing chemical materials from the port of Latakia in western Syria. The most dangerous are being transferred to a US Navy vessel specially fitted with equipment to destroy the chemicals at sea. Moreover, Assad on Easter Sunday visited the ancient Christian town of Maalula, which his troops recently recaptured from rebels, state television said. ‘On the day of the resurrection of Christ, and from the heart of Maalula, President Assad hopes all Syrians have a happy Easter, and for the reestablishment of peace and security throughout Syria,’ the channel announced in a caption at the bottom of the screen, without showing images of the visit.
It added that Assad had inspected the Mar Sarkis (Saint Sergius and Bacchus) monastery, damaged in recent fighting. It said the damage had been caused by ‘terrorists,’ using the regime's term for rebels. ‘Even the worst terrorists cannot erase our heritage and civilisation,’ state television quoted Assad as saying. ‘Like other Syrian sites of heritage and civilisation, Maalula will always resist in the face of the barbarity and obscurantism that are targeting the country.’ Founded in the fifth century, the monastery is one of the Middle East's oldest. It is dedicated to two Roman Christian soldiers who were killed by emperor Galerius because of their faith.
The Facebook page of the Syrian presidency posted a picture of Assad - who has rarely appeared in public since the uprising began - standing next to a Christian priest. He held what appeared to be damaged friezes showing the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Throughout Syria's conflict, the Assad regime has sought to portray itself as the protector of the country's religious minorities against a revolt it says is led by foreign-backed extremists. The Syrian opposition dismisses such claims as part of a divide-and-rule strategy which is also aimed at deterring the West from providing greater support to the rebels.
Syria's uprising began in March 2011 as a peaceful revolt against the Assad family's four-decade rule but escalated into an insurgency and then a civil war when the regime launched a brutal crackdown. As the war has intensified, claiming an estimated 150,000 lives, it has also grown more sectarian, with jihadists flocking to the ranks of the Sunni-led rebellion and Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement fighting alongside the regime. With the backing of Hezbollah's battle-hardened fighters, Syria's army took control of Maalula last Monday. Located north of Damascus, Maalula is one of the world's oldest Christian settlements, and its inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.