News Column

Jordan Braces for Syria Chemical Warfare, U.N. Begins Probe

August 19, 2013

Jordan on Monday said it was preparing for the potential outbreak of chemical warfare across the border in Syria, as a UN investigation into the alleged use of such weapons began.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour told reporters in Amman that Jordan was bolstering its military presence and emergency preparedness in northern towns and villages along the 370-kilometre border.

"We have said before that we are preparing for the potentials for the outbreak of chemical warfare and to prevent the spillover of chemical warfare," Ensour said.

"It seems that there may be chemical weapons in Syria, and if there are it is our duty to protect our citizens, border villages and particularly the Zaatari refugee camp."

His comments came a day after a UN team of investigators arrived in Damascus to begin work in areas in the country in the grip of a drawn-out civil war.

In New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for "full access" for the team to sites where chemical weapons were alleged to have been used to collect samples and make interviews of victims.

"The situation inside the country undoubtedly would affect the activities of the team," Ban said.

"If confirmed, the use of chemical weapons by any side, under any circumstances, must be held accountable and constitute an international crime."

Ban said the team can remain in the country beyond the original plan of 14 days if both Syria and the UN would agree on the extension.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels fighting to oust him have accused one another of using chemical weapons.

The UN team have been authorized to make on-site visits and may remain in Syria up to 14 days. A UN convoy was seen leaving the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus under heavy security by government forces on Monday. UN officials in Syria said they were not authorized to speak on the whereabouts of the team.

Ensour acknowledged that the US has been providing Jordan with military assistance and training in order to cope with the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria, a scenario he described as a "crime of the century."

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has pledged to strengthen support for Jordan in light of the growing threat posed by the two-year conflict.

Some 1,000 US special forces are currently based in Jordan, with a task force of some 270 military advisers providing logistical support in monitoring and detecting potential chemical weapons use and safeguarding its borders with Syria.

Jordan's border areas have been subjected to near-daily errant missiles and rockets fired from Syria, with military officials expressing concern that the potential use of chemical weapons will directly threaten the lives of over 20,000 Jordanians.

Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that 30,000 Syrian refugees, most of them Kurds, have crossed into the northern Iraqi Kurdistan region in the last several days.

"The exodus is one of the largest waves of refugees since the civil war broke out in Syria 29 months ago," Claire Bourgeois, UNHCR's Iraq representative said.

Arab media showed thousands of Syrians streaming across a bridge over the Tigris River and into Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan.

Most of the refugees came from the northern province of Aleppo, where clashes were reported between Kurds and opposition extremist groups like al-Nusra Front.

According to the agency, the exodus started Thursday and picked up over the weekend and Monday. UNHCR said it is working with the Kurdish government to set a camp for the new comers.

It already sent trucks loaded with emergency supplies to serve the refugees.

"This is an unprecedented influx of refugees, and the main concern is that so many of them are stuck out in the open at the border or in emergency reception areas with limited, if any, access to basic services," said Alan Paul, emergency team leader for the Britain-based charity Save the Children.

Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in Syria, make up 9 per cent of the population.

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Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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