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25 Aug, 2013 12:56

UN team in Syria heads to site of alleged chemical weapons attack

UN team in Syria heads to site of alleged chemical weapons attack

UN experts set off from central Damascus on Monday to investigate the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb, a day after the Assad government gave the “green light” to allow investigators access to the site.

A six-car convoy of chemical weapons experts wearing blue UN body armor was accompanied by a car of security forces as well as an ambulance, Reuters reports.

They said they were on their way to the rebel-held outskirts of the Syrian capital known as Eastern Ghouta, the alleged site of the world’s worst chemical attack in decades.

On Sunday, the Syrian Foreign Ministry announced an agreement was “concluded in Damascus between the Syrian government and the United Nations during the visit of the UN high representative for disarmament, Angela Kane, to allow the UN team led by Professor Aake Sellstroem to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Damascus province.”

The agreement "is effective immediately". 

Syrian authorities pledge to impose a ceasefire during the UN team inspection.

Russia has welcomed the move but has called on all the sides, “trying to influence the results of the investigation in advance”, not to “make tragic mistakes”.

Washington is not satisfied with the agreement, saying that Syria’s offer to allow UN inspectors access to the attack site was “too late to be credible”.

A convoy of United Nations (UN) vehicles leave a hotel in Damascus on August 26, 2013 carrying UN inspectors travelling to the site of a suspected deadly chemical weapon attack the previous week in Ghouta, east of the capital. (AFP Photo)

"If the Syrian government had nothing to hide and wanted to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons in this incident, it would have ceased its attacks on the area and granted immediate access to the UN— five days ago," a senior administration official said.

France also said on Sunday there can be “no doubt” that it’s the Assad regime, which is behind the alleged chemical weapons use near Damascus.

When asked about the Syrian government’s decision to grant the UN inspectors permission to inspect the sites of the suspected attacks, French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, replied that “this request was already made several days ago” and the location “has been bombed since.”

"From the moment the substance of the facts is established incontestably, there will necessarily be a strong response," Fabius is cited as saying by AFP.

The French stance was echoed by the UK’s foreign secretary, William Hague, who said that the international community “has to be realistic now about what the UN team can achieve” in Syria.

"The fact is that much of the evidence could have been destroyed by that artillery bombardment. Other evidence could have degraded over the last few days and other evidence could have been tampered with," Hague is cited as saying by Reuters.

The Syrian agreement comes amidst a media build up implying that Western powers accuse Assad’s government for the toxic gas attack on August 21 that reportedly killed anywhere between ‘dozens’ to ‘1,300’ people in a Damascus suburb.  

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government has been battling a 2-1/2-year revolt, said claims his government had used chemical weapons were politically motivated and warned the United States against intervention.

"Would any state use chemicals or any other weapons of mass destruction in a place where its own forces are concentrated? That would go against elementary logic. So accusations of this kind are entirely political," he told the Russian daily Izvestia in an interview.

"Failure awaits the United States as in all previous wars it has unleashed, starting with Vietnam and up to the present day."

#Syria's Information Minister: We have incontrovertible proof that terrorists used chemical weapons pic.twitter.com/zUKqFUy6zL

— SANA English (@SANA_English) August 25, 2013

Earlier Britain and the US suggested the Syrian government was reluctant to give a UN investigative team access to the site of the reported attack because it “has something to hide” and wants to give the evidence time to degrade. 

Shortly before the move, a senior US official said there was "very little doubt" that a chemical weapon had been used by Assad's forces.

The agreement comes despite the fact that earlier in the day the Syrian Information Minister, Omran Zoabi said that Damascus would cooperate "significantly and transparently" with UN investigations but would not allow any "inspection that will prejudice national sovereignty". 

Meanwhile, Western officials stated they are considering “a serious response” from the international community if it is proven that government forces used chemical weapons against civilians.

On Saturday, British PM David Cameron’s spokesperson said that both the UK and the US have tasked officials to examine all the options. 

Russia has warned unilateral military action against Syria will have a devastating impact on security in the Middle East region.

Earlier, Syria’s Information Minister, Zoabi, stated that "US military intervention will create very serious fallout and a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East.” 

No urgency over Aleppo probe

On March 19, Syria’s state news agency Sana reported “terrorists” had launched a rocket containing chemical materials in the Aleppo suburb of Khan al-Assal. Opposition forces blamed the Syrian government for the attack, which the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) says killed 26 people, including 16 soldiers.

The Syrian government called on the United Nations to investigate the incident a day after the alleged attack, although negotiations between Damascus and the UN dragged on for months, raising questions about the efficacy of the probe.

On March 20, both Russia and Syria accused the UK and France of attempting to stall the investigation at Khan al-Assal by taking what Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin characterized as the “the unjustified step” of widening the probe.

Syria blocked the UN team’s access to Syria in light of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s insistence to “determine whether any chemicals weapons were used, in any location."

United Nations (UN) peacekeepers from the Philippines cross the Israeli army crossing of Quneitra between Syria to the Israeli annexed Golan Heights on June 12, 2013, on their way for a vacation after serving in Syria. (AFP Photo / Menahem Kahana)

Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zouabi, told RT that the move to initially block the probe was an attempt to thwart a “repeat of the Iraq scenario.”

“Their aim is, first, to cover those who are really behind use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal, and secondly, to repeat Iraq’s scenario, to pave the way for other investigation inspections. To provide, based on their results, maps, photos of rockets and other fabricated materials to the UN, which as we know, opened the way to the occupation of Iraq,” al-Zouabi said.

Syria eventually came to an agreement which allowed UN investigators to launch an investigation initially limited to three areas: the village of Khan al-Assal, and two other sites that have not been disclosed.

On August 18, the 20-member strong UN delegation, led by Swedish chemical weapons expert, Ake Sellstrom, arrived in Damascus.

Ahead of the UN team’s arrival Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, reiterated previous claims that Syria’s call for an immediate investigation was not forthcoming.

“We said that these weapons were used in Syria, and Syria was the first to inform the United Nations that armed groups used these weapons in Khan al-Assal,” he said. “We had wished that the United Nations had conducted the investigation immediately at the time so the team would not find difficulties gathering evidence.”