Hagel: Need Proof, Not Suspicions of Chem Weapons

CAIRO - US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that Israeli military leaders did not give him any assessment over their allegations that Syrian troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have used chemical weapons against opposition rebels.

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

"Suspicions are one thing. Evidence is another. I think we have to be very careful here before we make any conclusions," Hagel said. "That's not at all questioning other nations' intelligence, but the United States relies on its own intelligence ... So until I can see that intelligence, I really don't have anything else to say."

On Tuesday, Israeli General Itai Brun, chief of the research division of Israel's army intelligence branch, said "to the best of our professional understanding, the Syrian regime used lethal chemical weapons against gunmen in a series of incidents in recent months."

Hagel concluded his visit to Cairo, where he met with military officials and Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi and discussed regional and bilateral issues and ways to end the Syrian conflict. The uprising began in 2011 and has killed more than 70,000 people.

Hagel said he stop in Egypt was to reaffirm US commitment to Egypt's emerging democracy and to encourage the democratic and economic reforms that are underway there.

The talks between Morsi and Hagel also focused on possible developments in military cooperation between the two countries, according to Al-Ahram on line.

Egypt is one of the largest recipients of American military aid, averaging around 2 billion dollars a year. Morsi has repeatedly called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, however, he has opposed any military intervention in Syria.

Egypt, a regional ally of the United States, has recently shown signs of rapprochement towards Iran after decades of lukewarm relations under former Egyptian president Hosny Mubarak.

Hagel is making his first tour of the Middle East since becoming chief of the Pentagon nearly two months ago.

He has already visited Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He is due to hold talks with officials on Thursday in the United Arab Emirates.

At the centre of the tour is a 10-billion-dollar arms sales with Arab and Israeli allies, which he has said sends a "very clear signal" to Iran that the military option to counter its controversial nuclear programme is still on the table.

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