UN inspectors collect samples from gas attack site

Experts take samples from corpses as Western powers consider military strikes


UN chemical weapons experts interviewed and took blood samples today from victims of last week’s apparent poison gas attack in a rebel-held suburb of Syria’s capital, after the inspectors themselves survived sniper fire that hit their convoy.

Military chiefs from the United States and its European and Middle Eastern allies met in Jordan for what could be a council of war - should they decide to punish Syria for the worst reported chemical weapons attack in 25 years.

Washington says US president Barack Obama is considering options to respond to what the United States believes was the mass gassing of civilians by president Bashar al-Assad’s forces on August 21st.

Many hundreds of people died in Damascus suburbs in what appears to have been the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds to death in 1988.

UN investigators crossed the frontline from the centre of the capital, which remains under Assad’s control, to inspect the Mouadamiya suburb, one of at least four neighbourhoods hit by the poison gas last Wednesday before dawn.

The United Nations said one vehicle in its convoy was crippled by gunshots fired by “unidentified snipers”. The team continued on after turning back for a replacement car. “I am with the team now,” a doctor who uses the name Abu Karam said from Mouadamiya. “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.” Wassim al-Ahmad, an opposition activist, said members of the Free Syrian Army umbrella rebel organisation and the opposition’s Mouadamiya Local Council were accompanying the inspectors on their tour of the suburb.

“The inspectors are now examining victims being treated at a makeshift hospital in Mouadamiya and are taking blood samples from them,” Mr Ahmad said. Video filmed at the site showed inspectors in black and blue body armour and blue UN helmets walking through a street as curious onlookers came up to watch. They shook hands with men who appeared to be rebels wearing camouflage vests, and were accompanied by doctors and local residents.

The group descended into the basement of a building where they were told injured survivors were being treated below ground to protect them from more shelling. Another video showed an inspector interviewing a patient and taking notes. Activists say at least 80 people were killed in Mouadamiya when the district was hit with poison gas.

Hundreds of people were also killed in three other rebel-held districts - Irbin, Ain Tarma and Jobar. An opposition activist said a large crowd of people gathered to air their grievances to the UN team. There was also a plan for the experts to take samples from corpses.

The inspectors later returned to their hotel, and within an hour residents reported that the shelling of Mouadamiya resumed. The decision to proceed with the mission despite coming under attack thwarted an apparent attempt to halt their work before it began. “The first vehicle of the chemical weapons investigation team was deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified snipers in the buffer zone area,” the United Nations said in a statement. “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.”

Syrian state television blamed rebel “terrorists” for the shooting. The opposition blamed it on pro-Assad militiamen. The inspectors had been stuck in a downtown luxury hotel since the attack, waiting five days for government permission to visit the scene a few miles away. They had arrived three days before the incident, with a mandate to investigate earlier, smaller reports of chemical weapons use. Washington and its allies say they worry that the time that has elapsed, and continuous shelling by Assad’s forces against the affected areas, could make it impossible for the inspectors to collect evidence.

The United Nations said secretary-general Ban Ki-moon was confident the team could get the data it needs. Speculation has been mounting that Western countries will order some kind of military response to an incident that took place a year after Mr Obama declared the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that would require strong action.

In neighbouring Israel, citizens have been queuing up for gas masks, in case Assad were to respond to a Western attack by firing on Israel, as Iraq’s Saddam did in 1991. US defense secretary Chuck Hagel said any operation would be coordinated with allies: “The United States is looking at all options regarding the situation in Syria. We’re working with our allies and the international community.”

British prime minister David Cameron cut short a holiday to lead a top-level security meeting. Mr Obama, Mr Cameron and French president Francois Hollande all spoke to each other and to other allies in the past few days in a flurry of phone calls. Cameron also called Russian president Vladimir Putin today.

Several Nato countries have issued statements pledging a response, although none has been specific about what is planned. Top military officers of the United States, Britain, France, other Nato allies and the main anti-Assad countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, met in Jordan today to discuss Syria, diplomats there said.

The conference was pre-planned but had taken on new significance because of the latest events, the diplomats said. The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Martin Dempsey, a co-host of the meeting with his Jordanian counterpart, has been one of the voices in Washington urging caution and emphasising the costs of a full-scale military intervention in a war in the heart of the Middle East.

Mr Obama, who withdrew troops from Iraq and is winding down the conflict in Afghanistan, is reluctant to engage in another war. He could look at limited options such as a missile strike to punish Assad without dragging Washington deeper into the fight.

On the ground today, rebel forces took control of a strategic town in northern Syria, 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 showing the execution of Alawite cleric Badr Ghazal by hardline Islamist rebels, highlighting the growing sectarian bloodshed of the two-year conflict. In Aleppo, 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 Aleppo province, according to the Observatory, which opposes President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The move hampers Assad’s forces options for counterattack against the large swathes of rebel held territory in northern Syria along the Turkish border.