UNITED Nations inspectors came under sniper fire while en route to the site of a suspected chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus yesterday as US secretary of state John Kerry accused president Bashar al-Assad of destroying evidence.
The UN said a car that formed part of the convoy of the weapons-investigation team was “deliberately shot multiple times”, although no-one was reported injured in the attack. After being forced to retreat, the inspectors later reached a makeshift hospital near the capital to begin tests on survivors of last week’s bombardment.
With doubts over whether the team will discover proof of a chemical weapons attack as any evidence would be degrading by the day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for the mission to be allowed to conduct a “full, thorough and unimpeded” review.
Mr Kerry, in a statement last night, called last week’s attack a “moral obscenity” that should shock the conscience of the world. He said the US has additional information about the attack and would make it public in the coming days.
Mr Kerry added that shelling the affected area afterwards was not the action of a government trying to co-operate with UN investigators.
The volatile atmosphere sparked by the attack last Wednesday was evident as the UN delegation prepared to visit the suburban site. Nearly an hour before the team departed, several mortar shells fell about 700 yards from its hotel, wounding at least three people. Soon afterwards, the six-car convoy’s lead vehicle was hit by gunfire in the region between rebel and government-controlled territory, prompting the UN to appeal for calm. The car was left severely damaged, forcing the inspectors to return to a checkpoint and find a replacement vehicle.
In a statement, the UN said: “The first vehicle of the chemical weapons-investigation team was deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified snipers in the buffer-zone area. It has to be stressed again that all sides need to extend their co-operation so that the team can safely carry out their important work.”
Syrian state media said the mortar bombs were fired by “terrorists”.
Speaking in Seoul, Mr Ban said: “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. We owe it to the families of the victims to act.
“All those in Syria have a stake in finding out the truth. The whole world should be concerned about any threat or use of chemical weapons. And that is why the world is watching Syria.”
He added: “I demand that all parties allow this mission to get on with the job so that we can begin to establish the facts. The team must be able to conduct a full, thorough and unimpeded investigation.
“I have total confidence in their expertise, professionalism and integrity. Their success is in everyone’s interest – all parties in Syria and all concerned states.”
Wassim al-Ahmad, a member of a local council in Moadamiyeh, said five UN investigators eventually arrived at a makeshift hospital in the suburb, where doctors and about 100 people still suffering symptoms from the attack were brought to meet them.
A doctor who uses the name Abu Karam spoke by telephone from Moudamiya. He said: “I am with the team now. We are in the Rawda mosque and they are meeting with the wounded. Our medics and the inspectors are talking to the patients and taking samples from the victims now.”
The inspectors later returned to their hotel in the capital. The UN confirmed that they had visited two hospitals, where they interviewed witnesses, survivors of the attack and doctors. The team also collected some samples, details of which remained unclear.
While the 20-strong mission will have to assess what it discovered, the task of finding meaningful remnants of any chemical weapons is being made all the more difficult as time passes.
Any traces of chemicals on munitions fragments, buildings and impact craters will already have degraded, while it will also have become difficult to detect anything from urine testing of inhabitants in the outskirts of Damascus.
Ralf Trapp, a disarmament expert who worked for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is supplying experts to the UN team, said traces of chemicals in a victim’s urine fade within days, though blood could contain traces for weeks.
He said: “They should be collected as soon after the incident as possible, preferably within a couple of weeks after the alleged use.”
Mr Trapp added that vials and containers must be secured with fibre-optic seals and accompanied by exhaustive documentation “to be able to demonstrate that the samples have not been tempered with”.
Per Runn, a Swedish chemical weapons expert who worked with the UN delegation leader, Ake Sellstrom, and is a former branch head at the OPCW, said one of the major hurdles would be gaining access to areas under rebel control, where the Syrian government cannot provide security guarantees.
He explained: “I do not envy Ake’s position. As the person on the ground for the UN, he is the one who will have to make the decision whether it is safe or not to go.
“He will face criticism no matter what he does. If something goes wrong, he will be criticised for taking risks. If he refuses to go, he will be criticised for being too cautious. He’s caught between more than a rock and a hard place.”
Rebels kill cleric as they seize back key town
Rebel forces took control of a strategic town in northern Syria yesterday, killing more than 50 pro-government fighters and cutting off government forces’ only supply route out of the city of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Britain-based Observatory also said it had obtained a photograph of the execution of Alawite cleric Badr Ghazal by hardline Islamist rebels, highlighting the growing sectarian bloodshed of the 2½-year conflict.
In Aleppo provence, rebels led by Islamist militant groups captured Khanasir, a town that sits on the government supply route connecting the northern province to the central city of Hama. The rebel gain will leave government forces besieged in the province, which opposes president Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The move will also hamper government forces options for counter-attack against the large swathes of rebel-held territory along the Turkish border.
Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory, said dozens of fighters from the paramilitary National Defence Forces (NDF) were killed. Activists had counted 53 bodies, including that of the leader of the NDF’s Aleppo-based forces.
The NDF is a volunteer force that compares itself to the army’s reserve units. Its fighters generally stay in their own regions and have taken on the bulk of ground battles against the rebels, leaving Mr Assad’s more elite military forces to organise artillery and air strikes.
Meanwhile, residents in the central province of Homs yesterday said rebels tried to retake the strategic town of Talkalakh, 2.5 miles from Lebanon. Its capture would allow rebels to replenish their supplies.
For weeks, Mr Assad’s forces have been on the offensive in Homs, a province considered vital to securing their hold from Damascus to the president’s coastal stronghold. But the advance near Talkalakh and the purported assassination of an Alawite cleric suggest the rebels are trying to push back in central Syria.