UNITED NATIONS/ DAMASCUS - UN inspectors braved sniper fire on Monday to reach the site of a suspected deadly chemical weapons attack near Damascus, as the West weighed possible military action against Syria’s regime.
A defiant President Bashar al-Assad declared that any strike by the US and its allies would be doomed to failure and key ally Moscow warned of ‘dangerous consequences’ for the entire region.
A UN spokesman said unidentified snipers shot at the UN team of experts looking into allegations of a poison gas attack in a Damascus suburb last week that the Syrian opposition claimed killed hundreds of civilians. Though their vehicle was damaged, the team, led by Swedish scientist Dr Ake Sellstrom, was unharmed.
The Syrian authorities accused rebels fighting Assad’s forces of being behind the sniper fire, while the opposition said pro-regime militias were to blame, although both sides were said to have agreed to a temporary ceasefire.
After briefly pulling back, the investigators went to a field hospital in the town of Moadamiyet al-Sham where victims of the attack were still being treated, UN officials and activists said. They took samples and interviewed medical staff during a visit which lasted almost three hours before returning to their hotel in Damascus.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the UN will register a strong complaint with the government and opposition authorities about the attack “so the safety…of the investigation team will be secured.” Ban said he is now waiting for a fuller report from Dr Sellstrom.
Speaking from Seoul where he is on an official visit, Ban said “every hour counts” and demanded that all parties allow this mission “to conduct a full, thorough and unimpeded investigation”. “We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity,” he stressed.
The inspection came as the West appeared to be moving closer to launching a military response over last Wednesday’s attack near Damascus that shocked the world after grisly pictures emerged of dead children apparently gassed to death.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the West could act even without full UN Security Council backing. France said the West would decide in the coming days on a response. “The only option that I do not envisage is to do nothing,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
Turkish foreign minister said Turkey would join an international coalition against Syria even if the UNSC fails to reach consensus. “If a coalition is formed against Syria... Turkey will take part in it,” Ahmet Davutoglu told the Milliyet newspaper.
But US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Monday that US would only take action in concert with the international community and with legal justification. Hagel declined to discuss US military options but said, “The US is looking at all options.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned his US counterpart John Kerry of the “extremely dangerous consequences of a possible new military intervention for the whole Middle East and North Africa region”. Lavrov said, “Using force without UNSC approval is a very grave violation of international law,” he warned.
China also called for a “cautious” approach saying that “all parties should handle the chemical weapons issue cautiously to avoid interfering in the overall direction of solving the Syria issue through political settlement. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing backed UN probe to “find out the truth”.
In a telephone call on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told British PM David Cameron there was no evidence yet about the use of chemical weapons and as to who was behind it if it had happened, according to a British spokesman. But Cameron insisted there was ‘little doubt’ about it.
Iraq said Monday it opposes the use of its airspace or territory in any attack on Syria. “We do not agree to any use of our airspace ... to attack any neighbouring country through our land,” PM Nuri al-Maliki’s spokesman said.
Assad, in an interview, denied such accusations as an “insult to common sense” and said any military action was doomed to fail. “The US faces failure just like in all the previous wars they waged,” he said. A senior Syrian security official said Western threats of strikes are part of the pressure, but in any case “we are ready to face all scenarios”.