Select medical providers could receive U.S. help to leave Syria so they can present U.N. experts with proof of chemical arms strikes by President Bashar Assad's regime, the Daily Beast reported on Wednesday.
The Assad government asked the United Nations to investigate an alleged March 19 gas attack reported to have killed about 30 people in the village of Khan al-Assal, but the regime has refused to admit U.N. investigators who also want to examine claims of other chemical incidents. The advance U.N. team earlier this week withdrew from Cyprus, which for several weeks had served as the staging ground for entry into Syria.
Two U.S. officials said the State Department is collaborating with independent groups in Syria under the White House-backed operation to begin guiding out medical personnel who might offer evidence on the situation, along with samples collected from people possibly exposed to chemical warfare agents. One insider said the effort is intended to lay blame for any chemical strikes squarely on Damascus.
The United Nations, though, said a Russian journalist had turned over video footage purported to show rebels had carried out the March 19 strike, ITAR-Tass reported on Friday. U.N. investigation head Ake Sellstrom is expected to receive the material.
Meanwhile, Damascus has tentatively accepted calls to join talks aimed at securing a diplomatic end to the 2-year-old civil war, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Friday in comments reported by Reuters. Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the U.N. General Assembly had "essentially pushed (the opposition) to reject negotiations" by denouncing Assad in a measure last week.
The gathering's timing is uncertain because "no clarity [exists] about who will speak on behalf of the opposition and what powers they will have," the Associated Press quoted him as saying on Friday. Russia is "not encouraged" by discussions between participants in the Syrian National Coalition, the country's pre-eminent rebel organization, the spokesman said.
The main opposition group on Thursday started a three-day meeting to decide on leadership ahead of the planned talks, the New York Times reported.
"We are very supportive of the (U.S.-Russian) initiative," rebel group member Louay Safi said in remarks quoted by AP. "Our fear is that the regime is not going to negotiate in good faith. We would like to hear enough (from Damascus) to know that they are serious about these negotiations."