Syria: U.N. chemical weapons inspectors reach alleged attack site

CNN/ Newswire | 8/26/2013, 10:29 a.m.
U.N. inspectors appear to have reached one of the areas of an alleged chemical attack in Syria on Monday after ...
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denies use of chemical weapons

By Frederik Pleitgen. Hamdi Alkhshali and Ben Brumfield


U.N. inspectors appear to have reached one of the areas of an alleged chemical attack in Syria on Monday after sniper fire hit one of their vehicles.

The inspectors entered the town of Moadamiyet al-Sham and appeared to be inspecting the area with doctors, according to social media videos posted by activists.

The team had been on its way to inspect the scene of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburban area of Ghouta, after the Syrian government on Sunday agreed to grant the inspectors full access, the United Nations said.

The regime said its army would cease all hostilities as long as the U.N. inspectors are on the ground.

An umbrella group for the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, also said last week that the opposition would ensure the safety of any U.N. personnel in the area.

The Syrian government accused "terrorists" of firing on the inspectors, Syrian state TV reported.

The United Nations has not said who may have been behind the shooting, which came after an explosion near the site the team planned to visit. Some witnesses said it was caused by incoming ordnance, perhaps a mortar shell.

The vehicle was "deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified snipers in the buffer zone area," the U.N. statement said. "It has to be stressed again that all sides need to extend their cooperation so that the Team can safely carry out their important work." There were no reports of injuries.

'Crime against humanity'

The use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity and must be punished, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon told journalists earlier Monday in Seoul, South Korea.

Washington may be preparing to take on the role of the punisher, if reports that the Syrian government used poison gas against civilians are verified.

The team plans to inspect the site of last week's attack in Ghouta "in just a matter of hours," Ban said. The Syrian government for days would not let the team approach the site, and it fears the chemical evidence may have dissipated.

"Every hour counts. We cannot afford any more delays. We have all seen the horrifying images on our television screens and through social media. Clearly this was a major and terrible incident," Ban said.

"We owe it to the families of the victims to act."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday repeated the denial that his army had anything to do with the use of poison gas.

"The area of the claimed attack is in contiguity with the Syrian army positions, so how is it possible that any country would use chemical weapons in an area where its own forces are located?" he said in an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestia.

He accused the United States, Britain and France of exploiting the incident by trying to verify rebel allegations instead of verifying facts.

A red line

The use of a large amount of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" and threaten U.S. interests in the region, President Barack Obama has said. Washington is all but certain that al-Assad's embattled government has, a U.S. official said.