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U.N. floats plan to destroy Syrian chemical weapons stocks

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during a news conference at the United Nations Headquarters in New York September 3, 201
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during a news conference at the United Nations Headquarters in New York September 3, 201

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - In a bid to help the U.N. Security Council overcome its "embarrassing paralysis" on Syria, the U.N. chief said on Monday he may ask the council to demand that Damascus move its chemical arms stocks to sites where they can be safely stored and destroyed.

Later this week or next week, the U.N. team of chemical weapons experts, led by Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, is expected to submit a report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about its investigation of an August 21 chemical attack that the United States says killed over 1,400 people, many of them children.

U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking congressional authorization to launch military strikes against Syria because of the incident, which it blames on the Syrian government. Ban has warned that punishing Syria with military force and without a clear U.N. mandate could make the situation there even worse.

"I have already been considering certain proposals that I could make to the Security Council when I present the investigation team's report," Ban said, adding that the international community would be obligated to act if the use of poison gas in Syria's 2-1/2-year civil war was confirmed.

"I'm considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed," he said.

He was responding to questions about a Russian plan to place Syrian chemical arms under international control. Moscow said it was urging Syria to hand over its poison gas stocks.

Ban said it was a realistic plan but would require cooperation from Syria. He added that if Syria consents, "the international community will (take) very swift action to make sure that these stocks, chemical weapons stocks, will be stored safely and will be destroyed."

"First and foremost, Syria must agree positively to this," he added.

Ban also urged Syria to join the international anti-chemical weapons convention, a treaty that Damascus has never signed.

If Sellstrom confirms the use of chemical weapons in Syria, "there would be a need for accountability, both to bring to justice those who used them ... and to deter anyone else from using these abhorrent methods of warfare," Ban said.

"There would be a need for greater security regarding any chemical weapons stocks," he added.

KERRY'S RHETORICAL REMARKS?

Ban said he welcomed both the Russian plan and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks in Europe on Monday that if Syria handed over its chemical stocks it could avoid U.S. air strikes - remarks the State Department later said had been merely rhetorical comments.

The secretary-general, who just returned from the Group of 20 developed and developing nations' summit in Russia, said the Security Council has an obligation to end its deadlock on Syria.

"Two and half years of conflict in Syria have produced only embarrassing paralysis in the Security Council," he said.

"Should Dr Sellstrom's report confirm the use of chemical weapons, then this would surely be something around which the Security Council could unite in response, and indeed something that should merit universal condemnation," he said.

Sellstrom's report will only say whether chemical weapons were used, not who is believed to have used them.

Russia, backed by China, has used its veto power in the Security Council three times to block resolutions condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and threatening it with sanctions. Assad's government, like Russia, blames the rebels for the August 21 attack.

The United Nations has received at least 14 reports of possible chemical weapons use in Syria. After months of diplomatic wrangling, the U.N. experts arrived in Syria on August 18 with a 14-day mandate to look for evidence.

Sellstrom's team was initially going to look into three incidents, but its priority became the August 21 attack. The inspectors have also been looking into Syrian allegations that the rebels used chemical weapons three times last month against the Syrian army - allegations that Washington has dismissed.

Ban has said Sellstrom's team would return to Syria to continue its investigation as soon as possible.

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Eric Beech)

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