Key: Syria weapon destruction proposal 'interesting'

Prime Minister John Key says a UN-backed suggestion to destroy all of Syria's chemical weapons as a way of diverting an increasingly violent situation is an "interesting proposal".

United States' president Barack Obama had been pressing for congressional backing for military action against the Assad government, but a suggestion by Secretary of State John Kerry for Syria to hand over all of its chemical weapons has been broadly welcomed.

Mr Kerry told reporters in London early yesterday that Syrian president Bashar Assad could resolve the crisis surrounding the use of chemical weapons by surrendering control of "every single bit" of his arsenal to the international community by the end of the week.

Hours later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promised to push its ally Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle them quickly to avert US strikes.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem immediately embraced the proposal. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged acceptance.

Mr Key told TV3's Firstline programme today the Government's preferred position was to let the UN Security Council do its work.

"We've been part of the Pacific Forum last week that issued communique saying exactly that; that both individually and collectively the Security Council needs to show leadership in this area."

If the proposal for Syria's chemical weapons to be destroyed was credible and complete, that was "certainly an interesting proposal".

"We certainly welcome the destruction of all chemical weapons in any country."

The plan could sway public opinion in terms of what world leaders decide on Syria's future, he said.

"Everyone can understand how abhorrent the situation is in Syria, and everyone feels for the people who are vulnerable to these attacks and have been subjected to the attacks almost certainly by the Assad regime."

- APNZ with additional reporting by AP

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*** AP's earlier story is below ***

Confronted by the threat of US air strikes, Syria swiftly welcomed the idea of turning over all of its chemical weapons for destruction, capping a remarkable chain of events that started with a suggestion from Secretary of State John Kerry, followed by a proposal from Russia and immediate endorsement by the UN secretary-general.

The Obama administration continued to express deep scepticism about Syrian President Bashar Assad's intentions, and the president pressed his efforts to gain congressional backing for US military action. But he faces a decidedly uphill fight and serious doubts by the American public. Today's developments could provide him with a way out of a messy political and foreign policy bind.

Kerry told reporters in London early Monday that Assad could resolve the crisis surrounding the use of chemical weapons by surrendering control of "every single bit" of his arsenal to the international community by the end of the week.

Hours later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promised to push its ally Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle them quickly to avert US strikes. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem immediately embraced the proposal. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged acceptance.

That seemed to raise prospects for avoiding an expansion of the Syrian civil war, and spokesmen said the administration would take a "hard look" at the proposal. But the matter was far from settled. The White House continued to build its case for action, with Obama taping six television network interviews for late Monday and administration officials briefing more members of Congress as they returned from summer recess. Obama will address the nation Tuesday night.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the US would consider the proposal with "serious skepticism" because it might be merely a stalling tactic. She said Syria had consistently refused to destroy its chemical weapons in the past.

In fact, she said the developments made it even more important for Congress to authorise the use of force against Syria as a means for pushing Assad to actually get rid of chemical weapons stocks.

The US accuses Assad's government of being behind an attack using sarin gas in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21, killing 1,429 people. Some other estimates of the deaths are lower, but there is wide agreement that chemical weapons were used.

In an interview with American journalist Charlie Rose that was broadcast Monday on "CBS This Morning," Assad denied responsibility, accused the Obama administration of spreading lies without providing a "single shred of evidence," and warned that air strikes against his nation could bring retaliation.

Pressed on what that might include, Assad responded, "I'm not fortune teller."

Later, Syria's foreign minister, meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow, addressed the idea of getting rid of any chemical weapons.

"Syria welcomes the Russian proposal out of concern for the lives of the Syrian people, the security of our country and because it believes in the wisdom of the Russian leadership that seeks to avert American aggression against our people," said al-Moallem.

Said Lavrov: "If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus."

US officials in Washington initially said they were surprised by Kerry's comments, which came at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and in response to a question about what, if anything, Assad could do to stop the US from punishing it for the use of chemical weapons.

"Sure," Kerry replied. "He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously."

In a speech today, Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice reiterated that the president had decided it is in US interests to carry out limited strikes. And the State Department moved to play down Kerry's comment.

"Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used," department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in an email sent to reporters. "His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons otherwise he would have done so long ago."

Al-Moallem's statement appeared to mark an acknowledgement by Damascus that it possesses chemical weapons and reflected what appeared to be an attempt by Assad to avoid the US military attack.

But it remained to be seen whether the statement represented a genuine goodwill gesture by Syria or simply an attempt to buy time.

Al-Moallem and Lavrov had not reacted to Kerry's comments when they spoke to reporters immediately after their meeting. But Lavrov appeared before television cameras several hours later to say Moscow would urge Syria to quickly place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle them.

"If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus," Lavrov said.

"We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons," he said.

- AP

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