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France and UK call for UN sanctions over Syrian chemical attacks

UN ambassadors from London and Paris described the use of chemical weapons against civilians as a war crime
A Security Council investigative panel said in a report that Assad's forces had carried out at least two chemical attacks in 2014 and 2015 (AFP)

Britain and France called on Tuesday for United Nations sanctions to be imposed on Syria after a UN-led investigation found the government had carried out chemical attacks.

The UN ambassadors from London and Paris described the use of chemical weapons against civilians as a war crime ahead of a closed-door council meeting to discuss the investigation's findings.

French Ambassador Francois Delattre called for a "quick and strong Security Council response" that would include "imposing sanctions on those who are responsible for these acts".

US Ambassador Samantha Power did not specify what measures should be taken, but called on the Security Council to act swiftly to ensure those responsible for using chemical weapons "pay a price".

An investigative panel set up by the Security Council said in a report last week that President Bashar al-Assad's forces had carried out at least two chemical attacks, one in 2014 and one in 2015.

Previous reports from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had concluded that toxic gases have been used as weapons in Syria's five-year war, but stopped short of identifying the perpetrators.

The panel of inquiry, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), pointed the finger of blame at the Assad government for using chemical weapons after years of denial from Damascus.

Syria rejected the findings, saying there was no physical evidence to support the conclusions.

"These conclusions lack any physical evidence, whether by samples or attested medical reports that chlorine was used," said Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari on Tuesday.

British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said the council will be "looking at the imposition of sanctions and some form of accountability within international legal mechanisms".

It is "essential that we have a robust international response" to impose "measures under chapter 7" of the UN charter, which provides for sanctions, he added.

The push for sanctions against Damascus is expected to face resistance from Russia, Syria's ally.

Russia has "very serious questions" about the investigation and is not ready to accept the findings, Moscow's ambassador said on Tuesday.

"There are a number of questions which have to be clarified before we accept all the findings of the report," Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said following a closed-door meeting of the Security Council to discuss the report of the investigative panel.

The panel found that the Syrian government had dropped chemical weapons on two villages in northwestern Idlib province: Talmenes on 21 April 2014 and Sarmin on 16 March 2015.

In both instances, Syrian air force helicopters dropped "a device" on houses that was followed by the "release of a toxic substance," which in the case of Sarmin matched "the characteristics of chlorine".

Chlorine use as a weapon is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria joined in 2013, under pressure from Russia.

Human Rights Watch called on the council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for war crimes and to urgently impose sanctions.

Britain, France and the United States said such a step remained an option, even though Russia and China blocked ICC referral in 2014.

"Russia and China don't have a leg to stand on by continuing to obstruct the Security Council on Syria sanctions and ICC referral," said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch.

"The Security Council diminishes its importance if it doesn't take strong action against demonstrated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government," he said.

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