Updated: Mon, 26 Aug 2013 10:05:17 GMT | By Agence France-Presse

UN team heads to suspected Syria chemical attack site

UN inspectors headed Monday to the site of a suspected deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria as the West mulled possible military action but President Bashar al-Assad warned that any strike would fail.


UN team heads to suspected Syria chemical attack site

The UN chemical weapons investigation team arrives in the Syrian capital Damascus on August 18, 2013. UN inspectors Monday headed to the site near Damascus of a suspected chemical weapons attack the opposition says was carried out by Syrian regime forces, an AFP photographer reported.

Britain said the West could act even without full UN Security Council backing after last week's alleged gas attack near Damascus which the Syrian opposition said killed hundreds of civilians.

Washington and its allies have pointed the finger of blame at Assad's regime for the alleged attack, which has sharply escalated tensions over a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people.

Assad, in an interview with a Russian newspaper published Monday, angrily denied the accusations as an "insult to common sense" and said any military action was doomed to failure.

"The United States faces failure just like in all the previous wars they waged," he said.

And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov -- whose government is the Damascus regime's close ally -- warned his US counterpart John Kerry of the "extremely dangerous consequences" of launching military action.

The Syrian authorities approved the UN inspection of the site in Ghouta east of Damascus on Sunday, but US officials said it was too little, too late, arguing that persistent shelling there in recent days had "corrupted" the site.

Mortar shells also hit a mosque in the centre of Damascus on Monday, the Syrian news agency SANA said, blaming "terrorists", its term for rebel fighters.

The international community has long been divided over how to respond to the conflict, with Russia and China repeatedly blocking UN Security Council resolutions.

US President Barack Obama has been loath to order US military action to protect civilians in Syria, fearing being drawn into a vicious civil war, soon after he extracted US troops from Iraq.

But revulsion over video footage and grisly photographs of dead children blanketing the world's media has seen mounting pressure on the international community.

"Is it possible to respond to chemical weapons without complete unity on the UN Security Council? I would argue yes," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC.

Asked about the possibility of military strikes this week, Hague said: "I'm not going to rule anything in or out, I'm not going to speculate about that in public."

France said the West would decide in the coming days on a response.

"The options are open. The only option that I do not envisage is to do nothing," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on French radio.

Turkey -- a vehement opponent of the Assad regime -- said it would join an international coalition against Syria even if the Security Council fails to reach consensus on the issue.

US officials said that Obama, who held crisis talks Saturday with top security aides, would make an "informed decision" about how to respond to an "indiscriminate" chemical weapons attack.

Obama had said a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces was a "red line" that could trigger Western intervention.

A White House official however shot down a report in Britain's Telegraph newspaper claiming that London and Washington planned to join forces and launch military action against Syria "within days".

"The president has not made a decision to undertake military action," the official said.

Experts believe the most likely US action would see sea-launched cruise missiles target Syrian military installations and artillery batteries deemed complicit in the chemical weapons attack.

Weapons fired from US planes outside the country could also be used, to minimise the risk to US or allied pilots from Syrian air defenses.

Washington would likely seek to act with a broad coalition of European and Gulf allies as Russia is seen sure to veto any attempt to mandate action against its ally.

Senior military officers from Western and Muslim countries, including the US chief of staff -- were also gathered in Jordan Monday to discuss the regional impact of the war.

Syria's opposition says more than 1,300 people died when toxic gases were unleashed last Wednesday. Doctors Without Borders said 355 people had died of "neurotoxic" symptoms in the affected areas.

If confirmed, the attack would mark the deadliest use of chemical agents since Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein gassed Iranian troops and Kurdish rebels in the 1980s.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Monday there was no time to waste in probing the allegations.

"Every hour counts. We cannot afford any more delays," Ban told reporters in Seoul.

Assad told Rusia's pro-Kremlin Izvestia daily that the frontline in the area where the alleged attack took place was not clear and the Syrian regime would have risked killing its own troops if it used chemical weapons.

"The comments made by politicians in the West and other countries are an insult to common sense... It is nonsense," he said.

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