A convoy of UN cars heads towards the Moadamiya suburb, southwest of Damascus, on Monday. (Reuters)
London, Aug. 26: UN inspectors heading towards the site of a suspected chemical attack in Syria came under fire “multiple times by unidentified snipers” as they sought to cross into rebel-held territory today, the UN said, and the first car in their convoy was hit.
While there were no immediate reports of injuries, “the car was no longer serviceable”, so the inspectors “returned safely back to the government checkpoint”, the UN said in a statement in New York, urging the combatants to cooperate with efforts to establish what happened in the attack last Wednesday.
There was no independent account of who had opened fire, but the inspectors resumed their inquiry later. Anti-government activists posted videos online of UN inspectors in blue helmets arriving in a suburb southwest of the capital, Moadamiya, where they were shown entering a clinic and interviewing patients.
Moadamiya is a rebel-held suburb where anti-government activists reported the smaller of two suspected chemical attacks last Wednesday. Videos posted then showed patients in a rebel field hospital apparently having trouble breathing. Local activists have said dozens of people were killed in the attack.
The visit by the UN inspectors to the Damascus suburb, in a half-dozen vehicles escorted by Syrian security forces, came shortly after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria denied that his forces had used poison gas against his own citizens, and as divisions between outside powers over how to handle the crisis showed no signs of easing.
In an interview with a Russian newspaper, Izvestia, published today, Assad said accusations that his forces had used chemical weapons were illogical and an “outrage against common sense”. He warned the US that military intervention in Syria would bring “failure just like in all the previous wars they waged, starting with Vietnam and up to the present day”.
Assad’s choice of a Russian newspaper to air his views seemed to reflect Moscow’s strong support for the Syrian leader after last week’s attack on the outskirts of Damascus, which claimed hundreds of lives.
Yesterday, a spokesman for Russia’s foreign ministry, Aleksandr K. Lukashevich, said that those who advocated an armed response to any chemical weapons attack — without citing the US or other countries — were prejudging the results of the UN inspections.
“In these conditions, we again resolutely call on all those who are trying to impose the results of the UN investigations and who say that armed action against Syria is possible to show common sense and avoid tragic mistakes,” Lukashevich said in a statement released on the ministry’s website.
While Assad has said he would give weapons inspectors access to the site, the gesture has been greeted with widespread scepticism in the West, with critics saying that the offer came too late for inspectors to make an accurate assessment of what happened.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, complained today that access was not “unimpeded” since it was limited to a “certain number of hours”.
British officials also said today that Prime Minister David Cameron would cut short a vacation in Cornwall, in southwest England, to return to London and head a meeting of senior ministers on Wednesday.
His gesture seemed designed to heighten the mood of crisis as outside powers wrestle with Assad’s refusal to bow to the West.