The UN team that is supposed to investigate an alleged chemical weapons strike near the Syrian capital Damascus came under sniper fire on Monday as it traveled to the scene of the attack. A vehicle was damaged but there were no reports of injuries.
A United Nations spokesperson tweeted that the team had turned back to replace the vehicle after which the investigators intended to head out again. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s spokesperson Martin Nesirky said the investigators were “deliberately shot at multiple times” by unidentified snipers in the buffer zone area between rebel- and government-controlled territory in Damascus
An Associated Press photographer saw the members wearing body armor leaving in seven SUVs earlier in the day.
Syrian activists and opposition leaders have said that between 322 and 1,300 people were killed in the alleged chemical attack on Wednesday.
— UN Spokesperson (@UN_Spokesperson) August 26, 2013
Syria said Sunday that the UN team could investigate the site but a senior White House official dismissed the deal as “too late to be credible.”
Ban said at a press conference in Seoul that talks between UN High Representative for Disarmament Angela Kane and top Syrian officials had arrived at an agreement to allow the mission access to areas that were targeted in last week’s alleged chemical weapons that reportedly killed over 350 people.
“All those in Syria have a stake in finding out the truth,” Ban said. “The whole world should be concerned about any threat or use of chemical weapons. And that is why the world is watching Syria.”
Ban added that the UN team on the ground in Syria, led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, has been working intensively around the clock to respond to the latest reports of alleged use of chemical weapons.
“We owe it to the families of the victims to act,” he said. “And 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.”
The secretary-general stressed that the success of the mission could act as a deterrent against any further use of chemical weapons.
“If proven, any use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances is a serious violation of international law and an outrageous crime,” he said. “We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity.”
Approval for the UN team to act appeared to meet the demands of the world powers, including the US, Britain, France and Russia, all of whom called on the Syrian government to cooperate with the UN and grant inspectors access to the sites.
Confirmation of chemical weapons use carries enormous stakes, and could play a large role in determining the future course of a Syrian conflict. It has reinvigorated debate about the possible use of foreign military action in Syria’s civil war.
Last week, France said that if an independent investigation confirms that chemical weapons were indeed employed, then military force could be used in Syria.
The UN team arrived in Syria last week to investigate three earlier purported chemical attacks.