The United Nations confirmed Monday afternoon the use of chemical weapons in Syria in a report that the secretary general describes as "chilling reading."
A U.N. investigation team led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom was able to collect clear and convincing evidence that ground-based rockets loaded with sarin gas were deployed against Syrian civilians, killing hundreds, reported Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday. The U.S. has claimed the total death count exceeds 1,400, while the Russian government says it is in the low hundreds.
The report did not specifically identify the perpetrator of the attacks, though representatives and supporters of the Syrian opposition maintain it does not have the advanced rockets necessary to deploy such an attack.
After reading the report, Secretary-General Ban issued a statement supporting the new U.S.-Russia plan for disarming the Bashar Assad regime of the chemical weapons it last week admitted to having.
"It is for others to decide whether to pursue this matter further to determine responsibility," he said. "We may all have our own thoughts on this, but I would simply say this was a grave crime and those responsible must be brought to justice as soon as possible."
"There must be accountability for the use of chemical weapons. Any use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, is a crime," Ban said. "This is a war crime."
This is the worst instance of chemical weapons use since Saddam Hussein attacked the Halabja region of Iraq in 1988, Ban said.
Syria agreed Sept. 13 to sign a U.N. chemical weapons treaty, and has one week to declare the size, scope and location of its chemical weapons. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has until November to complete an inspection of these sites, and until mid next year to destroy them.
The Syrian Coalition, which speaks on behalf of the opposition movement in Syria, claims the U.N. report's confirmation that surface-to-air rockets were used solely incriminates the Assad regime.
"The international community cannot, in good conscience, allow the Syrian regime to commit such attrocities with impunity," said Najib Ghadbian, special representative of the Syrian Coalition to the U.N. "If the world does not act now, this war will continue, and thousands more will die."
The opposition movement warned Sept. 15 that the international framework for the destruction of the Assad regime's chemical weapons gives the president time to wage intensified war using conventional weapons.
"The people of Syria look to the U.N. Security Council to do everything in its power to stop this conflict and hold the Syrian regime responsible for its criminal actions."
The U.N. will hold a general assembly meeting later this month. Ban called on Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to settle on a date at that time for a second conference in Geneva, to follow up on the first peace talks there last summer.