US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters in Cairo, on April 24, 2013
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters in Cairo, on April 24, 2013. Hagel urged caution Wednesday over an Israeli claim Syria's regime used chemical weapons, saying it was "serious business" and any evidence had to be weighed carefully. © Jim Watson - Pool/AFP
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters in Cairo, on April 24, 2013
AFP
Last updated: April 24, 2013

Hagel urges caution on Syrian chemical weapons claims

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel urged caution Wednesday over an Israeli claim Syria's regime used chemical weapons, saying it was "serious business" and any evidence had to be weighed carefully.

Warning against a possible rush to judgement, Hagel indicated he had been caught off guard by allegations from an Israeli general this week that Syria had fired chemical agents against rebels in recent months.

Meanwhile Syria's Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi reiterated in Moscow President Bashar al-Assad's regime position that Damascus would not use chemical weapons even if it had them, state media reported Wednesday.

"When I was in Israel they did not give me that assessment. I guess it wasn't complete," Hagel told reporters in Cairo on a tour of the Middle East that included a three-day visit to Israel.

The United States has warned any use or transfer of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" and possibly trigger military action.

Britain and France also suspect Syria has used chemical weapons but Hagel said US intelligence agencies were still evaluating information and were not yet convinced.

"Suspicions are one thing, evidence is another," he said.

The Pentagon chief added that "this is serious business and you want to be as sure as you can be on these kind of things".

Asked if US credibility could be at risk as it has repeatedly referred to a "red line," Hagel said: "I don't think there's any danger".

The United States cooperates with other spy services but ultimately had to rely "on its own intelligence," he said before departing for Abu Dhabi.

Hagel's comments marked his first public reaction since the Israeli military's assessment came to light.

While Hagel was wrapping up his visit to Israel on Tuesday morning, Israeli Brigadier General Itai Brun, head of the research and analysis division of military intelligence, grabbed headlines when he alleged Assad's regime had used chemical agents -- mostly likely sarin gas -- more than once.

"To the best of our professional understanding, the (Assad) regime has made use of deadly chemical weapons against the rebels in a number of incidents in the last few months," Brun told a security conference in Tel Aviv.

Speaking at a conference in Moscow, Syria's Zohbi said that even if the regime had chemical weapons, it would not use them.

"Should Syria have chemical weapons, it would not use them against anybody," state agency SANA cited Zohbi as saying, citing "humanitarian principles".

"Syria was the one to propose an investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal," said Zohbi, citing a March attack in the northern province of Aleppo that sparked tit-for-tat rebel and regime accusations over the alleged use of chemical agents.

"Investigators would have arrived (by now in Syria) were it not for pressures on the United Nations," he added, echoing regime claims that the conflict in Syria is the result of an international conspiracy.

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