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U.S. and Russia at a 'pivotal point' in Syria talks
September 14, 2013, 11:02 am
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The United States has blamed Assad's government for the August 21 attack, while Russia and Assad say it was the work of rebel forces.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said a report by U.N. chemical weapons experts would confirm that poison gas was used in that attack.

Ban also said that Assad "has committed many crimes against humanity," although he did not say whether it was Assad's forces or rebels who used chemical toxins in the August attack.

There is little sign of compromise inside Syria, where sectarian and ethnic hatreds have been deepened by 2 1/2 years of war that has killed over 100,000 people and forced up to a third of the population from their homes.

Assad's forces were on the offensive around Damascus, opposition activists and residents said. Warplanes and artillery were bombing and shelling, notably in the Barzeh neighbourhood, where activists said there were also clashes on the ground.

"It seems that the government is back to its old routine after the past couple of weeks of taking a defensive posture from a U.S. strike," said one resident of central Damascus, who opposes Assad. She heard jets overhead and artillery in action.

U.N. investigators said Syrian government forces were bombing and shelling hospitals in rebel areas to stop sick and wounded getting treatment, acts that constituted war crimes.

Fighters loyal to Assad purposefully denied people medical care as a "weapon of war", they said in a report.

WEAPONS PLAN

The Geneva talks were part of a diplomatic push that prompted Obama to put on hold his plans for U.S. air strikes in response to the chemical weapons attack. Moscow's proposal also spared Obama facing a vote in Congress on military action that he had appeared increasingly likely to lose at this stage.

Three-quarters of Americans support efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria through an international agreement to control chemical weapons, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll that shows steady opposition to U.S. military action.

In polling this week, about 62 percent said the United States should not intervene in Syria, virtually the same percentage as a week earlier.

The United Nations said on Thursday it received a document from Syria on joining the global anti-chemical weapons treaty, a move Assad promised as part of a deal to avoid U.S. air strikes.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, said on Friday that Syria's deputy foreign minister had contacted it with a request for technical assistance.

But Assad told Russian state television that he would finalise plans to abandon his chemical arsenal only when the United States stopped threatening to attack.

France said a binding U.N. Security Council resolution was needed to police Syria's promise to give up its chemical weapons, insisting the matter cannot be left to the OPCW alone.

The State Department said Kerry would travel to Jerusalem on Sunday to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss Middle East peace talks and Syria. He will meet his French and British counterparts in Paris on Monday.

Experts say removing Syria's hundreds of tonnes of chemical weapons, scattered in secret installations, would pose huge technical problems in the middle of a civil war.

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