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Russia opposes use of force in resolution on Syria; rebels demand response after UN report

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DAMASCUS, Syria - Russia insisted Tuesday that a U.N. Security Council resolution governing Syria's handling of its chemical weapons not allow the use of force, but it suggested that could change if Damascus reneges on the deal to give up its stockpile.

The main Syrian opposition coalition, meanwhile, urged the international community to take swift action against the regime of President Bashar Assad in response to a U.N. finding that the nerve agent sarin was used in a deadly attack near the capital last month.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his country "spoke clearly" about rejecting the use of force when the chemical weapons agreement was worked out Saturday in Geneva between Washington and Moscow. The plan calls for an inventory of Syria's chemical weapons within a week, with all components of the program out of the country or destroyed by mid-2014.

But if signs emerge that Syria is not fulfilling the agreement or there are reports of further chemical weapons use, "then the Security Council will examine the situation," Lavrov said, suggesting the issue could be reconsidered.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said a resolution on the U.S.-Russia deal must be enforceable, telling reporters that the "most effective" way is under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. That deals with threats to international peace and security and has provisions for enforcement by military or non-military means, such as sanctions.

While in principle all Security Council resolutions are legally binding, Ban said, "in reality, we need clear guidelines under Chapter 7."

Lavrov made his remarks at a news conference in Moscow with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. France and the U.S. say a military option remained on the table, and they are pushing for the U.N. resolution to reflect that.

Diplomats said the five permanent council members — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — made little progress at a meeting Tuesday on a draft resolution and would meet again Wednesday.

On Monday, U.N. inspectors submitted a report on the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that deepened the Syrian crisis. It was the first official confirmation by impartial experts that chemical weapons were used in the attack, which killed hundreds.

The report confirmed that chemical weapons were used but did not ascribe blame, and Lavrov and Fabius differed sharply on their interpretations.

"The report exposes the regime," Fabius said. "On the basis of the information of our external agents, we consider that the report proves the responsibility of the regime for the chemical weapons attack of Aug. 21."

The U.S., Britain and France said evidence in the report — the type of rockets, the composition of the sarin agent, and trajectory of the missiles — showed that Assad's government was responsible. The report said surface-to-surface rockets containing sarin were fired from an area where Syria's military has bases, but said the evidence could have been manipulated in the rebel-controlled neighbourhood that was hit.

Russia, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, disagreed with the West's conclusions. Lavrov said Moscow has "serious reason to suggest that this was a provocation" by the rebels.

Ban called the report "the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them" against ethnic Kurds in Halabja, Iraq, in 1988.

The main Syrian opposition group, the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, said the report clearly shows that only the Syrian regime could have carried out the attack, and it urged the U.N. to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.

"The Syrian coalition urges the Security Council to end the culture of impunity in Syria, and to stop the Syrian regime from carrying out further war crimes and crimes against humanity," the coalition said.

SNC president Ahmad al-Jarba said the U.N. resolution should force the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons and also stop "the regime's war machine by banning the use of its air force, missiles and artillery."

The Syrian Foreign Ministry slammed the U.S., Britain and France for demanding that Assad step down, denouncing "their frantic quest to impose their will" on Syria.

"Assad is the legitimate president chosen by the Syrian people and will remain so as long as the Syrian people want this," the statement said.

Secretary-General Ban told the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday afternoon that the executive council that oversees the Chemical Weapons Convention, will meet Friday in The Hague, Netherlands to endorse the U.S.-Russia agreement. The Security Council is then expected to adopt a resolution early next week, he said.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov travelled to Damascus to meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency said Ryabkov would discuss the plan to dismantle chemical weapons.

Fighting in the civil war raged on, with a car bomb wounding more than a dozen people in northern Syria at a border crossing with Turkey.

The blast at the Bab al-Hawa frontier wounded 19 people, according to activist Ahmad al-Khatib in Idlib. Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said 15 were wounded.

In February, a car bomb at the border post killed 14 and two car bombs in May on the Turkish side killed 43.

Syria accused Turkey of escalating tensions by shooting down a Syrian military helicopter Monday. The military said the helicopter was monitoring cross-border infiltration of rebels when it "mistakenly" entered Turkish airspace.

Turkey's Deputy Prime Pinister Bulent Arinc said the aircraft was downed by a fighter jet after it ignored repeated warnings to leave Turkish airspace.

South of Damascus, Syrian government troops backed by Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah captured parts of the town of Chebaa, the Observatory said. Chebaa is also close to the Sayida Zeinab shrine that is sacred to Shiites.

Syrian troops shelled rebel-held areas and sent reinforcements to the southern region of Quneitra near Syria's Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the Observatory said.

___

Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Jim Heintz and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Edith M. Lederer and Peter James Spielmann at the United Nations, and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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