DAMASCUS, SYRIA -- A U.N. team that is supposed to investigate an alleged chemical attack near the Syrian capital Damascus that reportedly killed hundreds last week left their hotel Monday morning but was shot at before reaching their target.
An Associated Press photographer saw the members wearing body armor leaving in seven SUVs. The team was believed to be headed to the eastern Ghouta suburbs where the alleged attack occurred, but CBS News correspondent Holly Williams reports they received incoming sniper fire after leaving a checkpoint on the way.
Syrian activists and opposition leaders have said that between 322 and 1,300 people were killed in the alleged chemical attack on Wednesday.
Syria said Sunday that a U.N. team could investigate the site but a senior White House official dismissed the deal as “too late to be credible.”
Both the Syrian government and the Western-backed opposition Free Syrian Army agreed to cease fire in the suburbs to allow the inspectors to carry out their work, but the U.N. said in a statement that the lead vehicle was hit “multiple times by unidentified snipers in the buffer zone area,” forcing the entire convoy to turn around and regroup at a checkpoint.
“As the car was no longer serviceable, the Team returned safely back to the Government check-point,” read a statement released by a U.N. spokesperson. “The Team will return to the area after replacing the vehicle.”
Reuters reported that the team had managed to reach the suburb of Mouadamiya after the delay, according to activists and a doctor on the ground.
“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,” Abu Karam, a doctor in Mouadamiya, told Reuters in a phone call.
As the U.N. inspectors left their hotel, Syrian President Bashar Assad renewed his rejection of claims that his troops used chemical weapons the Ghouta attack, calling them “nonsense” in an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestia.
Assad told the Russian daily that the accusations his troops were responsible were “politically motivated.”
“This is nonsense,” Assad was quoted as saying in an interview published Monday. “First they level the accusations, and only then they start collecting evidence.”
Assad said that attacking such an area with chemical weapons would not make sense for the government as there was no clear frontline between regime and rebel forces.
“How can the government use chemical weapons, or any other weapons of mass destruction, in an area where its troops are situated?” he said. “This is not logical. That’s why these accusations are politically motivated, and a recent string of victories of the government forces is the reason for it.”
President Assad also warned that “failure awaits the United States” if Washington attempts to intervene in the crisis militarily.
France, Britain, Israel and some members of the U.S. Congress have urged swift military action against Assad’s regime if the use of chemical agents is confirmed, and the U.N. team’s conclusions could have a dramatic impact on the trajectory of the country’s civil war.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said no decision had been made on a military intervention but that any response would be “proportionate.”
“It will be negotiated in coming days,” Fabius told Europe 1 radio on Monday. He said that the lack of a U.N. blessing was problematic, but that all options remain on the table.
“The only option that I can’t imagine would be to do nothing,” Fabius said.
Russia, which has been a staunch ally of Syria, said last week that the accusations against Assad could be a bid to get the Security Council to stand by the opposition, and to undermine efforts to resolve the conflict by convening a peace conference in Geneva.
Russian Foreign Minister Servey Lavrov expressed concern over the specter of a military response from Washington to the suspected chemical weapons attack in a telephone conversation Sunday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
According to the Reuters news agency, Lavrov told Kerry Washington should refrain from falling for “provocations.”
“The minister (Lavrov) stressed that the official announcements from Washington in recent days about the readiness of U.S. armed forces to ‘intervene’ in the Syrian conflict have been received in Moscow with deep concern,” the ministry said, according to Reuters.
While in Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country would take part in an international coalition to move against Assad’s government if the U.N. fails to come up with sanctions to punish Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons.
In comments published Monday in Milliyet newspaper, Davutoglu said Turkey’s priority was to act according to U.N. decisions, but the country would join a coalition if there was no U.N. mandate.
Russia and China have thus-far blocked any significant action against the Assad regime at the U.N. by wielding their power as permanent members of the Security Council.
Davutoglu said “36 or 37” countries were already discussing options, but he did not say which countries nor what options they were considering. As one of the Assad government’s strongest critics, Turkey is backing the Syrian opposition and rebels.