BEIRUT

Middle East

U.N. inspectors wrap up work in Damascus

Ake Sellstrom (wearing cap), the head of a U.N. chemical weapons investigation team, arrives at Yousef al-Azma military hospital in Damascus August 30, 2013. (REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)

BEIRUT: U.N. experts have finished their work in Syria and will “expedite” a report on whether chemical weapons have been used in the country’s conflict, United Nations spokesman Martin Nesirky said Friday.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is ready to brief the Security Council on the investigation into a suspected chemical weapons attack this weekend if needed, the spokesman said.

Ban explained the progress made by the inspection team in a meeting with U.N. ambassadors from Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.

“The team has completed its collection of samples and evidence,” Nesirky told reporters. “They are now packing up, they will be leaving Damascus and leaving Syria tomorrow.”

U.N. disarmament envoy Angela Kane left Damascus Friday and will brief Ban in New York Saturday, the spokesman added. Interpreters and other backup staff with the U.N. team also left Friday, he said.

Earlier Friday the inspectors arrived at a military hospital in a government-held area of Damascus to visit soldiers affected by an apparent chemical attack, a Reuters witness said.

The inspectors have spent the week visiting rebel-controlled areas on the outskirts of Damascus after reports of a poison gas attack last week that the opposition blames on President Bashar Assad.

The Syrian government accuses the rebels of firing chemical munitions at civilians and soldiers.

Witnesses said the team was at the Mezzeh Military Airport meeting with soldiers who government media said were exposed to poison gas in the Damascus suburb of Jobar Saturday.

Official media said some soldiers were overcome by fumes after finding chemical agents in a tunnel that had been used by insurgents.

The state news agency SANA said soldiers “suffered from cases of suffocation.” State TV footage did not appear to show evidence of chemical weapons. It showed five blue and green plastic drums, normally used to transport oil, lined against a wall in a room and several rusty mortar bombs and grenades.

On the ground Friday, fierce fighting raged in a town near Damascus that the U.N. team visited earlier in the week.

“Violent fighting is pitting regular armed forces against rebels on the northern and western fronts of Moadamieh,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“The army is trying to advance into the town,” it said, adding that an air raid and a surface-to-surface missile launched by the army had targeted the area southwest of Damascus.

The army has for months been trying to take Moadamieh and Daraya – another Damascus suburb – back from the rebels, without success.

According to Damascus-based anti-regime activist Ibrahim Shaiban, these two rebel strongholds have been “intensely” bombed since Thursday.

“Regime forces have also dispatched men and tanks as backup,” he said.

On Thursday, eight people – including at least one woman and a child – died in Moadamieh bombings, and one person was killed in Daraya.

A top security official in Damascus said the army was “in permanent confrontation with terrorist groups who are in Moadamieh, and have been for a long time.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 31, 2013, on page 12.

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