UN inspectors gather evidence from Syria attack site after snipers target convoy

Assad dismisses chemical weapons charge, says any US intervention will fail


UN experts yesterday visited the besieged western Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya, allegedly targeted with chemical weapons last week, and began taking soil and debris samples, interviewing residents, and gathering blood, urine and tissue samples from the wounded to test for the presence of chemical agents.

The inspectors carried on with their mission after unidentified snipers shot at their convoy as they crossed the narrow buffer zone between government- and rebel-held areas.

The lead armoured UN vehicle was hit several times, forcing the convoy to return to a military checkpoint where the vehicle was changed before the team resumed its investigation. No one was injured.

State television blamed the attack on rebels. “The Syrian government will hold the armed terrorist groups responsible for the safety of the members of the United Nations team,” an information ministry source stated.

The opposition National Council charged the government with responsibility and said peace talks were impossible now due to the alleged chemical attack.

Mouadamiya, a largely deserted Sunni suburb, is just 10 minutes by car east of Omayad Square, key government installations, and the diplomatic quarter, and south of a major military airbase.

The sniper attack followed early morning strikes by two mortar bombs on a fashionable district of central Damascus near the Four Seasons hotel, where the UN team is billeted. The state news agency Sana reported that the shells were locally manufactured and fired by “terrorists”, the term used by the government for its adversaries.

The team’s task is to confirm that a chemical agent was used and to identify the specific agent, not to assign blame.

However, the culprit may be indicated if the chemical agent deployed is not properly weaponised and is, instead, of amateur manufacture.

The 20-member UN team, headed by Prof Ake Sellstroem, arrived in Damascus on August 18th to conduct tests at sites of three earlier reported chemical attacks.

While the US has said the mission is too late to make concrete findings about the possible use of a nerve agent such as sarin, which degrades quickly, a dermatologist consulted by The Irish Times said residue would remain on the skin and soft tissues of both living and dead victims.

The purported chemical weapons attack on August 21st killed 355 people, according to Doctors without Borders, although the opposition puts the figure much higher at 1,300.

The government and rebels are blaming each other for the attack.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad told the Russian daily Izvestia that western and opposition claims that his government used chemical weapons were “an insult to common sense”.

He said that in the locations claimed to be targeted by chemical weapons, such an attack could have killed troops.

“Such accusations are completely political and the reason for them is . . . victories by government forces against terrorists,” he stated, warning that the US would face “failure just like in all the previous wars [it] waged, starting with Vietnam”.

He reiterated his government’s contention that the conflict was caused by the influx of thousands of foreign insurgents funded from abroad.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an ally of Mr Assad, blamed countries outside the region and Sunni states supporting radical Sunni militants, takfiris, for Middle Eastern turmoil.

Another ally of Damascus, the Palestinian Popular Front-General Command, said it would respond if Syria were attacked.

“The regional interests of those who participate in aggression against Syria will be legitimate targets,” said spokesman Anwar Raja. “We will wage war alongside Syria.”

Syria is home to half a million Palestinians, many of whom have been driven from their homes by the conflict.

On the ground, Syrian rebels have reportedly seized the strategic town of Khanasir, between the cities of Aleppo and Hama, cutting off the army’s main supply route for troops in Aleppo.

Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra jihadis released a photograph showing the execution of Badr Ghaz, a prominent religious leader of the Alawite sect to which Mr Assad belongs.

In Amman, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, is co-hosting with Jordan’s chief of staff, Gen Mishaal Zaben, an emergency meeting of defence chiefs from 10 countries with the aim of ensuring Jordan’s security and preventing spillover from the war in Syria. Senior officers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Canada are attending.

The declared object of the conference, expected to conclude today, is to “discuss regional security and implications of the ongoing crisis in Syria”, but the focus is likely to be current moves to take action if it is determined that chemical weapons were used by the government last week.