UN chemical weapons inspectors, in Syria to probe an alleged poison gas attack that killed hundreds, have left Damascus for Beirut, having completed four days of site visits and evidence-gathering, witnesses and officials say.
The experts departed their hotel in the Syrian capital on Saturday morning, after having carried out a final day of inspections on Friday. The inspectors are seeking to determine what exactly happened in an alleged chemical weapons strike that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburbs on August 21.
The 13 inspectors, led by Ake Sellstrom, were seen loading their luggage into seven UN vehicles before setting off from their hotel, an AFP correspondent said.
The departure of the UN experts has heightened expectations of a possible international military strike against government forces.
UN officials say it may take weeks to analyse the samples gathered and to present conclusions, and UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky said that the inspectors would return to the country to investigate several other alleged chemical weapons attacks that have taken place during the country’s two-and-a-half year uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Saturday’s pullout comes as Washington suggested that the UN investigation would have no bearing on its decision about whether to attack Syria in retaliation for the alleged poison gas attack on civilians.
Russia, diplomats said, was hoping to use the time needed to complete the UN probe to slow down the push for air strikes.
“The samples that have been collected will be taken to be analysed in designated laboratories, and the intention of course is to expedite the analysis of that sampling that’s been taken,” Nesirky said.
He offered no timeline for when that analysis would be completed, but said all samples would need to be fully analysed.
“This is not an electoral process, where you have exit polls and preliminary results,” he said.
“This is a scientific process. The only result that counts is the result of the analysis in laboratories and the analysis of the evidence that’s been collected through witness statements and so on.”
Analysis could take weeks
Nesirky was addressing reporters while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was meeting with delegates from the five permanent UN Security Council members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the US – to update them on the UN investigation in Syria.
But two diplomats told the Reuters news agency that Ban informed the five delegations that analysis of the samples could take up to two weeks.
Ban cut short a visit to Europe amid concerns that Western powers are preparing military strikes against Syria to punish the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the alleged chemical attack.
On Friday, Angela Kane, the UN disarmament envoy who had visited Syria with the UN experts, also left Damascus for Lebanon, and she is expected to brief Ban in New York later on Saturday.
France said on Friday it still backed military action to punish Assad’s government, and Washington pushed ahead with plans for a response despite a British parliamentary vote against a military strike.
An unclassified report by US intelligence agencies released on Friday said the attack killed 1,429 Syrian civilians, including 426 children.