Syria crisis: UN inspectors' convoy 'hit by sniper fire'

DAMASCUS - Unidentified snipers have opened fire on a convoy of UN experts investigating suspected chemical weapons attacks in Syria's capital, the UN has said.

One car was shot at "multiple times", forcing the convoy to turn back.

The UN promised to continue with the inquiry as soon as it could replace the car.

Syrian state media blamed opposition "terrorists" for the attack, though the claim could not be verified.

Hundreds died in suspected chemical attacks on Wednesday near Damascus.

The US said there was little doubt Syrian forces used chemical weapons in the attacks, which reportedly killed more than 300 people in rebel-held areas.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dismissed the accusation as "an insult to common sense" and warned the US against military intervention.

"If someone is dreaming of making Syria a puppet of the West, then this will not happen," he told the Russian newspaper Izvestiya.
Intimidation

The 20-member UN inspection team has been in Syria since 18 August to look into three earlier suspected chemical attacks.

The experts intend to take soil, blood, urine and tissue samples for laboratory testing from five locations on Monday and Tuesday.

They were unlikely to play any role in apportioning blame for the attack.

But shortly after setting out from the hotel, the cars came under fire "multiple times by unidentified snipers", according to a statement from the UN.

"The team returned safely back to the government checkpoint. The team will return to the area after replacing the vehicle," said the UN.

The UN Secretary General's spokesman, Farhan Haq, told the BBC the convoy was "deliberately targeted" but those behind the shooting remain "unidentified at this stage".

He said that it seemed someone was trying to intimidate the team.

A year ago, US President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be "a red line" that could trigger US military action.

Washington has recently bolstered its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, and military leaders from the US, UK and their allies are meeting in Jordan.

But the UN Security Council remains divided, with China and Russia appearing unlikely to drop their objection to stricter sanctions on Mr Assad's government.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Monday that diplomats should be cautious in dealing with the chemical weapons issue, and Moscow warned Western nations not to prejudge the outcome of the inspections.

Western politicians have begun to suggest taking action outside of the UN system.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC that action could be taken without UN approval if there was "great humanitarian need" in Syria.

Hans Blix: "It's important that [the inspectors] can go to any place they want to see"

His French counterpart Laurent Fabius suggested the UN Security Council could be bypassed "in certain circumstances".

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the Milliyet newspaper that more than 30 countries were already discussing how to act on Syria if the UN failed to agree.

He promised that Turkey would join any coalition against Mr Assad's government, with or without UN backing.

Western officials were unimpressed with Syria's decision to allow in the UN experts.

Mr Hague said evidence could have been tampered with, degraded or destroyed in the five days since the attack.

A senior White House official, quoted by AP news agency, dismissed the visit as "too late to be credible".

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Saturday that three hospitals it supports in the Damascus area had treated about 3,600 patients with "neurotoxic symptoms" on Wednesday morning, of whom 355 died.

While MSF said it could not "scientifically confirm" the use of chemical weapons, staff at the hospitals described a large number of patients arriving in the space of less than three hours with symptoms including convulsions, pinpoint pupils and breathing problems.

Syria's security forces are widely believed to possess large undeclared stockpiles of mustard gas and sarin nerve agent.

It is one of seven countries that have not joined the 1997 convention banning chemical weapons.

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