UN delays Syria chemical attack probe over security fears

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UN inspectors are seen arriving at the hotel in Damascus on 26 August 2013, following their return from an inspection of a suspected chemical weapons attack. (Photo: AFP)

Published Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Updated 3:18 pm: The United Nations has postponed a planned new visit by chemical weapons experts to a site near Damascus on Tuesday over "safety" fears, a spokesman said.

A sniper attack on the experts Monday forced the review of the plan to return to the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, said UN spokesman Farhan Haq.

"Following yesterday's attack on the UN convoy, a comprehensive assessment determined that the visit should be postponed by one day in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team," said Haq.

The UN team has still not obtained "confirmation of access" for a new visit but Haq said this was expected later Tuesday. He gave no other details of what was holding up the confirmation.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon "again urges all sides in the conflict to give safe passage and access to the team," said the spokesman.

"It is in the interests of all sides to bring factual evidence and clarity to a situation which has brought great suffering to the people of Syria."

The inspectors said on Monday that they managed to gather "valuable" evidence from one site of last week's gruesome attacks in which hundreds are said to have been killed.

The inspections come as a drumbeat toward western attacks against Damascus seemed to be getting louder with the United States and its allies mulling missile strikes.

The Washington Post cited senior administration officials as saying President Barack Obama was weighing limited military strikes on targets in Syria.

Such action would probably last no more than two days and involve cruise missiles, or possibly long-range bombers, striking military targets not directly related to Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, the newspaper said.

Russia, the Damascus' most powerful ally, warned any use of force against Syria would have "catastrophic consequences" while calling on the United States to show "prudence" and adhere to international law.

It also voiced regret that Washington had scrapped a planned meeting with it this week on the Syria crisis.

US Secretary of State John Kerry accused President Bashar al-Assad's government of a cover-up, but provided no evidence to support the claim.

"Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity," Kerry said.

Kerry spoke after UN inspectors met survivors of the attacks, which the independent medical agency Doctors Without Borders has said left at least 355 people dead from "neurotoxic symptoms."

The UN convoy came under sniper fire on Monday as it tried to approach the Damascus suburb where one of the attacks was reported, but the team managed to visit victims receiving treatment in two nearby hospitals.

"It was a very productive day," Haq told reporters, adding that the team, led by Swedish expert Aake Sellstroem, was "already gathering valuable evidence."

(AFP)

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