U.N. inspectors get to Syrian suburb allegedly hit by poison gas

A U.N. team, that is scheduled to investigate an alleged chemical attack that killed hundreds last week in a Damascus suburb, leaves their hotel in a convoy Aug. 26, 2013. An AP photographer saw the U.N. members, wearing body armor, leaving in seven SUVs. Photo: AP Photo

BEIRUT — United Nations chemical weapons inspectors arrived on Aug. 26 in one of the Syrian suburbs allegedly hit in a poison gas attack last week. Their trip had been delayed by a sniper attack.

Once there, the inspectors visited a pair of field hospitals and met with witnesses, the U.N. said.

The inspectors traveled to the Muadhamiya district, southwest of Damascus. Shooting by snipers, or long-distance marksmen, initially forced the U.N. convoy to turn back to the capital. A U.N. vehicle was struck in the incident, but no one was injured, the U.N. said in a statement. The damaged vehicle was replaced and the mission proceeded.

The U.N. appears to have worked out an agreement for safe passage with the two warring sides.  No specific details were released. Each side in the conflict blamed the other for the sniper fire. The civil war in Syria began in March 2011.

To See If Poison Gas Was Used

The U.N. planned to lodge a “strong complaint” with both the government and opposition forces about the shooting, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement. The inspectors are unarmed. They will resume their work on Aug. 27. Ban vowed that “the safety and security of the investigation teams will be secured.”

The team is supposed to find out whether chemical weapons were used. It is not meant to determine who used them. The rebels and the government have been trading blame for who was responsible, even as many in the West are pushing for a military response. Each side has its own international supporters.

There was no word on whether anything that the inspectors learned Monday supported or contradicted opposition allegations. The opposition to Syria's government said that a poison-gas bombardment last week killed hundreds of civilians outside Damascus.

Syrian President Bashar Assad strongly denied allegations that his country's forces used the weapons. He was interviewed by the Russian newspaper Izvestia. The comments were published on Monday.

Taking Statements And "Samples"

The inspectors traveled to two field hospitals and interviewed witnesses, survivors and doctors, Ban said. They inspectors took statements and also collected unspecified “samples.”

Officials previously said that the team would be seeking traces of possibly contaminated soil. They would also collect tissue, hair and other samples from victims. The samples will be taken for laboratory tests. The process that could take weeks.

It was not clear why the team initially chose to visit Muadhamiya. About 80 people were reported killed there in last week’s suspected chemical attack. But the hardest-hit area was apparently the so-called eastern Ghouta region, which is in the opposite direction.

An opposition group in Muadhamiya was waiting when the inspectors arrived, according to an activist in the town reached via Skype. The U.N. experts spoke with doctors and patients at a field hospital and took blood and hair samples, the activist said.

Afterward, some in the U.N. group went to visit a mosque that was allegedly hit during the chemical barrage last week. The activist said they also visited another reported site of a rocket attack.

Superpowers At Odds Over Syria

Amateur video said to be from the inspectors’ visit showed blue-helmeted U.N. workers speaking with people and visiting what appeared to be a clinic. Some patients were lying in beds.

Chemical weapons are considered especially bad because they cause undue suffering along with death.

The civil war in Syria is one of several that has the United States at odds with Russia.

The White House said on Sunday there was “very little doubt” that Syrian forces had used poison gas against civilians. The statement appeared to move the U.S. closer to a military strike against Syria in response.

On Monday, Russia said that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had warned his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry, about the “extremely dangerous consequences” of launching military action against Syria.

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