Middle East

Syria chemical weapons: UN inspectors to investigate

A photo released by Syria's state news agency purportedly showing victims of a chemical weapons attack at Khan al-Assal (19 March 2013)
Image caption Syria's government and rebels accuse each other of using chemical weapons

The UN says weapons inspectors are to depart shortly for Syria to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons.

Under an agreement reached with Damascus, the UN team is to visit three sites over two weeks, including a northern town at the centre of allegations of chemical weapons use.

Some 26 people were killed in the attacks in Khan al-Assal in March.

The UN mission had been delayed over differences with the Syrian government over the scope of the investigation.

However, on 31 July the Syrian government agreed to allow UN inspectors to visit the sites. On Wednesday the UN said its team had completed preparations for the trip.

"The government of Syria has formally accepted the modalities essential for co-operation to ensure the proper, safe and efficient conduct of the mission," said a spokesman for UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Eduardo del Buey.

"The departure of the team is now imminent," he added.

'Nothing to hide'

The mandate of the 10-member investigating team, led by Swedish arms expert Ake Sellstroem, is limited to reporting on whether chemical weapons were actually used and which ones, but it will not determine responsibility for any attacks.

After the initial two weeks, the UN said, the trip was "extendable upon mutual consent".

Two of the locations to be investigated have not been identified so far.

A Syrian foreign ministry official told the AFP news agency the investigating team was expected to arrive "in the coming days".

"There were no difficulties in the negotiations and Syria said it is ready to give the team all the facilities it needs to carry out its mission," the official said, adding: "Syria has nothing to hide."

What started out as anti-government protests inspired by the Arab Spring quickly descended into a full-scale civil war in Syria, with more than 100,000 people killed during the 28-month conflict.

The possibility of President Bashar al-Assad using Syria's chemical weapons stock or rebels obtaining some of the stockpiles is one of the factors that has most worried Western observers of the conflict.

The UN says it has received up to 13 reports of chemical weapons use in Syria - one from the Damascus government about the events at Khan al-Assal, with the rest mainly from the UK, France and USA.

Both sides of the conflict - the rebels and the government - have denied using chemical weapons.

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

Syria is widely believed to possess large undeclared stockpiles of mustard gas and sarin nerve agent.