The U.N. Security Council said it was necessary to clarify an alleged chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus on Wednesday but stopped short of explicitly demanding a probe by U.N. investigators in Syria.
"There is a strong concern among council members about the allegations and a general sense that there must be clarity on what happened and the situation must be followed closely," Argentina's U.N. ambassador, Maria Cristina Perceval, told reporters after a closed-door emergency meeting of the council.
While the council did not explicitly call for a U.N. investigation, it welcomed U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon's calls for one.
"The members of the Security Council also welcomed the determination of the Secretary-General to ensure a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation," said Perceval, who is president of the council this month.
Syria's opposition accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces of gassing many hundreds of people - by one report as many as 1,300 - in a pre-dawn attack on Wednesday. Assad's government denied using chemical weapons.
Western and regional countries have called for U.N. chemical weapons investigators, who arrived in Damascus three days ago to look into previous allegations of such attacks, to be dispatched to the scene of the latest reported attack, which occurred in suburbs east of Damascus.
The United States, Britain and France are among around 35 countries that called for chief U.N. investigator Ake Sellstrom and his team in Syria to investigate the incident as soon as possible.
U.N. diplomats, however, said Russia and China opposed language containing an explicit call for a U.N. probe. An earlier Western-drafted statement, seen by Reuters, would have asked the United Nations to "urgently take the steps necessary for today's attack to be investigated by the U.N. mission."
That proposed statement was diluted to accommodate Russian and Chinese objections, council diplomats told Reuters.
British Deputy U.N. Ambassador Philip Parham said, however, that the council statement did amount to a de facto call for an investigation of the alleged gas attack.
"She (Perceval) made very clear that the council supported a prompt, thorough and independent investigation," Parham said.
Deputy U.N. Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said the world body hopes Sellstrom, who is in talks with the Syrian government about possibly investigating the alleged gas attack, will be able to visit the site of the reported incident.
"We very much hope that we will be able to conduct the investigation," he told reporters after briefing the council behind closed doors. "Dr Sellstrom and his team are in place in Damascus. We hope that they will be given access to the area by the government."
He said the consent of Assad's government would be necessary. He added it was also essential that both the government and rebels agreed to halt fighting to enable the investigators to visit the site without fear of harm.
Russia's Foreign Ministry called for a fair and professional investigation into reports that troops loyal to Assad were responsible for the suspected attack.
But Moscow suggested that rebels could have staged the alleged assault to provoke international action.
It was not immediately clear how the Syrian government would respond to requests to allow Sellstrom's team to investigate the alleged incident. The United Nations and Assad's government were in talks for months before an agreement led to the arrival of Sellstrom's team in Damascus this week.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Sandra Maler and Philip Barbara)