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France says more signs of chemical weapons in Syria

BRUSSELS (AP) — France’s foreign minister says more signs have emerged of chemical weapons being used in Syria.

France had been looking into reports of that since early this month when the ministry said there were accounts and indicators on the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war that needed to be verified.

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On Monday, minister Laurent Fabius said outside a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels that there ‘‘ are stronger and better substantiated indications of the local use of chemical arms. We have to check this and (we) are doing this with our partners.’’

The U.S., Turkey and Qatar persuaded the U.N.’s top human rights body to hold another urgent debate on the civil war in Syria, the first such session in more than a year, as diplomats pushed Monday for more international pressure to hold accountable those responsible for killing thousands of civilians.

U.N. Human Rights Council President Remigiusz Henczel said the debate will be held on Wednesday, and officials said negotiations have already begun on a resolution focused on the violence in the Syrian town of Qusair, near Lebanon.

It would be the council’s second urgent debate since March 2012, but the council also held four special sessions focused on Syria between the start of the crisis in March 2011 and June 2012.

In addition, there has been talk of another resolution that could be taken up toward the end of the council’s three-week session involving a possible attempt to curtail Syria’s participation in meetings of the 47-nation council, where it is not a formal member.

The council has passed nine previous resolutions on Syria seeking to bring an end to, and impose accountability for, the waves of killings, rapes, torture, shelling of civilians and other horrific abuses from Syria’s escalating catastrophe.

Diplomats exchanged sharp words moments after the opening of the council’s latest three-week session, which immediately focused on the more than 70,000 people killed in Syria and millions displaced since the uprising against its president, Bashar Assad, began in March 2011 and became a civil war.

Ambassador Oguz Demiralp of Turkey said the Assad regime is ‘‘attacking its own citizens with heavy weapons’’ in Qusair, which has been under attack by government forces and members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group since last week.

‘‘This time the Syrian regime is blatantly hand-in-hand with foreign culprits,’’ he said. ‘‘Those who cling to power in Syria seem to have lost sense of reality and humanity.’’

Syrian Ambassador Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui lashed back, saying the council’s focus on his nation violates principles of impartiality because it comes from nations that support the rebels battling the government troops.

He took particular aim at the U.N.’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, and the office she oversees after she said that both sides in Syria’s conflict are blatantly disregarding international law.

‘‘We challenge them to provide one single proof of these allegations,’’ Hamoui told the council. Her office has shown an ‘‘irresponsible and biased attitude,’’ he added, and singled out Turkey and Qatar for sharing in that bias.

But many others, such as British Ambassador Karen Pierce, supported Pillay and what Pierce called her ‘‘vital words.’’

Pillay, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, said civilians are bearing the brunt of a crisis ‘‘in which human rights violations have reached horrific dimensions.’’

Pillay said she is concerned at reports suggesting hundreds of civilians have been killed or wounded, and thousands trapped, by indiscriminate shelling and aerial attacks by government forces in Qusair.

Refugees streaming into neighboring countries from the war, she said, are suggesting that ‘‘the Syrian government continues to use indiscriminate and disproportionate force in residential areas, and that the Syrian armed forces have directly targeted schools and hospitals.’’

‘‘Wanton human rights violations are also being committed by anti-government groups,’’ Pillay said. She urged the Security Council, the U.N.’s most powerful arm, to refer the Syrian crisis for prosecution before the International Criminal Court, based in the Netherlands.

Though it cannot make such a referral itself, the Human Rights Council has what officials call an ever-growing body of evidence of appalling violations of basic human rights that should lead to mounting calls for action to end the civil war that is also threatening the region.

Next week, officials say, a U.N. panel investigating war crimes in Syria is due to deliver its latest report — including an update on the suspected use of chemical weapons — to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.

The U.N. General Assembly approved an Arab-backed resolution two weeks ago calling for a political transition in Syria. But many nations refused to vote ‘‘yes’’ to the non-legally binding, U.S.-backed resolution because of its support for the main opposition group.

Key Syrian ally Russia urged a ‘‘no’’ vote, saying a transition would promote a one-sided resolution that could sink a new U.S.-Russia effort to end the escalating conflict.

The Assad regime has agreed in principle to participate in peace talks in Geneva next month. The United States and Russia hope to bring together the government and opposition for direct talks, but the exact date, agenda and list of participants for the conference remains unclear.

The new resolution demands that all parties work with U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to rapidly implement a roadmap for a Syrian political transition adopted on June 30, 2012, in Geneva, by key nations including the five Security Council powers — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France.

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