DAMASCUS, Syria, August 26, 2013 (ENS) – A team of United Nations inspectors probing the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria was hit by sniper fire today as they were being transported to the site of the investigation in suburban Damascus, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced today.
Though its vehicle was destroyed, the team itself, led by Swedish scientist Dr. Åke Sellström, was unharmed and returned to the site to begin its investigation.
The team spent its first day in the suburbs of Damascus at the site of the alleged incident, interviewing witnesses, survivors and doctors, and collecting samples.
Secretary-General Ban said that the UN will register a strong complaint with Syrian government and opposition authorities about an attack “so the safety…of the investigation team will be secured.”
“What I am told is that despite the very difficult circumstances, our team replaced their car and returned to the suburbs of Damascus to carry out their investigation,” Ban said after a briefing by UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane, who is in Damascus meeting with the Syrian government to facilitate access for the team.
Ban said he is now waiting for a fuller report from Dr. Sellström.
The UN inspection team is spending up to 14 days, with a possible extension, probing the alleged use of chemical weapons by the government at Khan al-Asal, as well as two other allegations reported by UN Member States.
The latest allegations of chemical weapons use concern the Ghouta area outside Damascus, a green agricultural belt separating the city from the dry grasslands bordering the Syrian Desert. The attack, on August 21, reportedly killed more than 300 civilians, including children, according to the UN. The Syrian opposition says 1,300 people were killed, while other death toll estimates are even higher.
Ban reiterated that any use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances is a serious violation of international law and an outrageous crime, saying, “We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity.”
The inspection team is working in cooperation with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, and the UN World Health Organization.
OPCW Director-General Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü condemned the attack and praised the courage and dedication of the OPCW staff and other members of the team, who despite the challenging circumstances are persevering in their mission as entrusted to them by the Secretary General and supported by the international community.
Ambassador Üzümcü said, “Any use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and stands fully condemned by the international community as embodied in the Chemical Weapons Convention and underlined in its near universal acceptance.”
But Syria is one of only seven countries that are not Parties to this treaty, formally known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction.
The treaty aims to eliminate an entire category of weapons of mass destruction by prohibiting the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons by States Parties.
Speaking from Seoul, South Korea, where he is on an official visit, Secretary-general Ban said “every hour counts” and demanded that all parties allow this mission “to conduct a full, thorough and unimpeded investigation.”
Ban said this team has his “total confidence in their expertise, professionalism and integrity.”
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child today added its voice to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and others for all parties in the conflict to stop targeting civilians.
“This atrocity is a gross violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” said Committee Chairperson Kirsten Sandberg. “It is a shocking example of how children’s rights are being violated as the Syrian conflict deepens, first and foremost the right to life.”
“Whoever committed these killings, as well as all those responsible for other crimes committed against Syrian children, should be held accountable,” said Sandberg.
Since fighting began in March 2011 between the Syrian government and opposition groups seeking to oust President Bashar Al-Assad as many as 100,000 people have been killed, including more than 7,000 children.
In addition, almost two million have fled to neighboring countries and a further four million have been internally displaced. The UN says at least 6.8 million Syrians, half of whom are children, require urgent humanitarian assistance.