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'Chemical attack merits serious response': Obama says Syrian regime is running out of time to allow UN inspectors to view site where activists claim nerve gas killed as many as 1,300

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  • President Obama said to be weighing military options after warning Assad chemical weapons use would be crossing a 'red line'
  • Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said nerve gas attack needs to be verified but that it 'appears to be what happened'
  • UN representative Angela Kane arrived in Syria today to ask President Assad to let investigators into the country to look into the claim
  • Military officials told Associated Press four battleships have been moved within striking zone of Syria and could be used for Tomahawk missile attack

By Daily Mail Reporter

PUBLISHED: 00:57 EST, 25 August 2013 | UPDATED: 01:00 EST, 25 August 2013

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President Obama has moved closer to military intervention in Syria, after stating that the alleged chemical attack by the Assad regime last week warranted a 'serious response.'

Obama said time was running out for Assad to allow UN weapons inspectors to view the site of the alleged attack near Damascus, where as many as 1,300 people died on Wednesday.

A government source said Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed all options should be kept open, while taking a clear stance that the West will not abide by chemical weapon attacks on innocent civilians.

WARNING: Graphic content

American attention: President Obama appeared on CNN's 'New Day' Friday to discuss the alleged attack, saying it was a 'big event of grave concern' that requires American attention

American attention: President Obama appeared on CNN's 'New Day' Friday to discuss the alleged attack, saying it was a 'big event of grave concern' that requires American attention

'They reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community and both have tasked officials to examine all the options,' a British government spokesman told the Guardian.

Obama had spoken at length to Cameron on Saturday, in a conversation that led him to believe Assad was most likely behind the chemical attack.

His move towards a more serious response comes as four battleships move within striking range of Syria, which has been locked in a deadly civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives since 2011.

Obama was said to be 'gravely concerned' by the attack and increasing signs that it was carried out against Syrians by Assad's forces.

'The fact that President Assad has failed to co-operate with the UN suggests that the regime has something to hide,' a spokesman said. 

The spokesman added that the President and Cameron, 'Reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community'.

'They agreed that it is vital that the world upholds the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons and deters further outrages.'

The tougher stance comes as U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters in Kuala Lumpa that Obama was still considering whether to use military force.

He said the Administration had to account for several factors, including intelligence on the Syrian attack, legal issues and the level of international support for a military response.

Prepared: Chuck Hagel, right, says the President has ordered the Pentagon to prepare potential military options

Prepared: Chuck Hagel, right, says the President has ordered the Pentagon to prepare potential military options

Obama had previously warned a chemical attack would signify Assad had crossed a 'red line'.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to discuss specific force movements but said Obama had asked the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria.

U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria.

U.S. Navy ships are capable of a variety of military actions, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, as they did against Libya in 2011 as part of an international action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government.

'The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies, and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options - whatever options the President might choose,' Hagel told reporters traveling with him to Asia.

Hagel said the U.S. is coordinating with the international community to determine 'what exactly did happen' near Damascus earlier this week. 

According to reports, a chemical attack in a suburb of the capital killed at least 100 people.

It would be the most heinous use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.

Hagel left little doubt that he thinks the attack in Syria involved chemical weapons, although he stressed there is not yet a final answer.

In discussing the matter, he said, 'it appears to be what happened - use of chemical weapons.'

Escalation: Angela Kane, the UN's high representative for disarmament, arrives in Damascus, Syria on Saturday to press President Bashar Assad to let UN investigators look into the reported chemical attack

Escalation: Angela Kane, the UN's high representative for disarmament, arrives in Damascus, Syria on Saturday to press President Bashar Assad to let UN investigators look into the reported chemical attack

At the ready: Four battleships have been moved to within striking range of Syria as President Obama weighs his options following a reported use of chemical weapons against citizens Wednesday

At the ready: Four battleships have been moved to within striking range of Syria as President Obama weighs his options following a reported use of chemical weapons against citizens Wednesday

UN disarmament chief, Angela Kane, arrived in Damascus on Saturday to press the Syrian government to allow UN experts to investigate the alleged chemical attacks.

Obama remained cautious about getting involved in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people and now includes Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.

He made no mention of the 'red line' of chemical weapons use that he marked out for Syrian President Bashar Assad a year ago and that U.S. intelligence says has been breached at least on a small scale several times since.

'If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it - do we have the coalition to make it work?' Obama said Friday. 'Those are considerations that we have to take into account.'

Obama conceded in an interview on CNN's 'New Day' program that the episode is a 'big event of grave concern' that requires American attention.

He said any large-scale chemical weapons usage would affect 'core national interests' of the U.S. and its allies. But nothing he said signaled a shift toward U.S. action.

U.S. defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss ship movements publicly.

But if the U.S. wants to send a message to Assad, the most likely military action would be a Tomahawk missile strike, launched from a ship in the Mediterranean.

For a year now, Obama has threatened to punish Assad's regime if it resorted to its chemical weapons arsenal, among the world's vastest, saying use or even deployment of such weapons of mass destruction constituted a 'red line' for him. 

A U.S. intelligence assessment concluded in June chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war, but Washington has taken no military action against Assad's forces.

U.S. officials have instead focused on trying to organize a peace conference between the government and opposition.

Obama has authorized weapons deliveries to rebel groups, but none are believed to have been sent so far.

Deadly attack: Activists say that somewhere between 200 and 1,300 were killed in a chemical weapons attack Wednesday near Damascus. Syria has one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons of any country

Deadly attack: Activists say that somewhere between 200 and 1,300 were killed in a chemical weapons attack Wednesday near Damascus. Syria has one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons of any country

A new low: If the reports are true, the chemical attack Wednesday will have been the largest chemical attack on citizens since Saddam Hussein's gassing on ethnic Kurds in 1988

A new low: If the reports are true, the chemical attack Wednesday will have been the largest chemical attack on citizens since Saddam Hussein's gassing on ethnic Kurds in 1988

In his first comments on Syria since the alleged chemical attack, Obama said the U.S. was still trying to find out what happened. Hagel said on Friday that a determination on the chemical attack should be made swiftly because 'there may be another attack coming,' although he added that 'we don't know' whether that will happen.

After rebels similarly reported chemical attacks in February, U.S. confirmation took more than four months.

In this instance, a UN chemical weapons team is already on the ground in Syria.

Assad's government, then as now, has rejected the claims as baseless.

Obama also cited the need for the U.S. to be part of a coalition in dealing with Syria. America's ability by itself to solve the Arab country's sectarian fighting is 'overstated,' he said.

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