UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the Syrian government Friday to respond "promptly and positively" to his request for U.N. experts to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack this week outside Damascus that reportedly killed at least 130 people.
Deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane will arrive in Damascus on Saturday to press for a speedy investigation. She helped negotiate the agreement with President Bashar Assad's government for the 20-member U.N. team now in Syria to investigate three previous alleged chemical weapons attacks.
Del Buey said the secretary-general believes Syria should agree to an investigation of Wednesday's attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus since it has "publicly expressed its own concerns regarding these events."
Syrian anti-government activists accused Assad's regime of carrying out a toxic gas attack and have reported death tolls ranging from 136 to 1,300. If confirmed, even the most conservative tally would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria's 2 1/2-year civil war, which the U.N. says has killed over 100,000 people.
The government has denied the allegations, saying they are "absolutely baseless."
Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil told The Associated Press on Thursday he was personally in favor of a fair, transparent international delegation to investigate the latest incident in Ghouta. But he said that would require a new agreement between the government and the United Nations, and that the conditions for such a delegation would need to be studied.
Del Buey said the secretary-general has written to the Syrian government seeking urgent confirmation that it is prepared to allow an investigation by the U.N. team based on the same arrangements that were agreed on Aug. 13 for the probe of the three previous allegations.
Under the Aug. 13 agreement, the U.N. team is scheduled to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack on March 19 on the village of Khan al Assal outside the city of Aleppo, which was captured by the rebels last month. The government and rebels blame each other for the attack. The sites of the two other incidents to be investigated are being kept secret for security reasons.
Chemical weapons experts have raised doubts about whether the U.N. team will find anything at the three sites because the alleged attacks took place months ago.
But if chemical weapons were used Wednesday, a prompt investigation would be much more likely to produce evidence.
The U.N. Security Council has given its backing to Ban's call for "a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation."
U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who briefed the Security Council on Wednesday, expressed hope that the government will give the team access to the site as soon as possible, though he cautioned that because of fighting "the security situation right now does not allow such access."
The secretary-general on Friday called on U.N. member states "with interest and influence" to exert pressure on both sides to provide "a safe and secure environment for the mission to engage in its work," del Buey said.
"The secretary-general also calls on the Syrian opposition to cooperate with the U.N. mission to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons in this most recent tragic event," he said.
"It is of paramount importance that all who share the concern and urgency of investigating these allegations, equally share the responsibility of cooperating in generating a safe environment for the mission to do its job," del Buey said.
Diplomats cautioned that the mandate for the current investigation is limited.
The U.N. team will report on whether chemical weapons were used, and if so which ones, but it will not determine the responsibility for an attack. This has led some commentators to question the value of the investigation.
Ban called for a cessation of hostilities in the Ghouta area, and in the country, to provide humanitarian assistance to all victims of violence, including the latest ones, del Buey said.