UN inspectors defy snipers to inspect Syria deaths site
on 26/08/2013 18:10:43
The Syrian government immediately accused rebel forces of firing at the team, while their opponents said a pro-government militia was behind the attack.
Activists said the inspectors eventually arrived in Moadamiyeh, a western suburb of Damascus and one of the areas where last week's attack allegedly occurred.
They said the team members spent three hours at a makeshift hospital, meeting doctors and taking samples from victims.
The United States has said that there is little doubt president Bashar Assad's regime was responsible for the attack.
Activists say the action killed hundreds; the group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355 people. Assad has denied launching a chemical attack.
The sniper attack came as support for an international military response was mounting if it is confirmed that Assad's troops used chemical weapons. France, Britain, Israel and some US congressmen have said such a response against the Syrian regime should be an option.
Russia, meanwhile, said Western nations calling for military action have no proof the Syrian government was behind any chemical attacks.
A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said one of the UN vehicles was "deliberately shot at multiple times" in the buffer zone area between rebel and government-controlled territory. He said the car was "no longer serviceable" after the shooting, forcing the team to return to a government checkpoint to replace the vehicle.
The Syrian government said it "holds the terrorist gangs responsible for the safety of the United Nations team." The Syrian regime routinely refers to rebels fighting to topple president Assad as terrorists.
Wassim al-Ahmad, a member of the Moadamiyeh local council, and the main Syrian opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, said members of a pro-government militia known as the Popular Committees fired at the UN team to prevent them from going in.
The rebel coalition said the sniper shots occurred near the final checkpoint between rebel and regime-controlled areas, calling it an attempt by the regime "to intimidate the UN team and prevent it from discovering the truth about Assad's chemical weapons attack against civilians."
Syrian activists and opposition leaders say that between 322 and 1,300 people were killed in the alleged chemical attack.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said president Barack Obama was studying intelligence on Syria's purported use of chemical weapons and "will get the facts" before acting.
He said Mr Obama "is considering all different options" and that "if there is any action taken, it will be in concert with the international community and within the framework of a legal justification."
President Assad said that accusations that his troops used chemicals were "politically motivated."
He said that attacking such an area with chemical weapons would not make sense for the government as there was no clear front line between regime and rebel forces.
The UN team's conclusions could have a dramatic impact on the trajectory of the country's civil war.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the countries calling for military action have assumed the role of "both investigators and the UN Security Council" in probing the incident.
He likened the situation in Syria to the run-up to the 2003 military operation in Iraq. He said "the use of force without a sanction of the UN Security Council is a crude violation of the international law".