Photo by the Associated Press
A vehicle carrying U.N. chemical weapons investigators came under sniper fire Monday as it was heading toward the site of an alleged chemical attack last week that killed hundreds of people.
There were no reported injuries in the sniper attack in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh, although one vehicle was disabled.
The Syrian government accused the rebels of firing at the team, while a rebel representative said a pro-government militia was behind the attack.
The shootings comes as U.S. naval forces move closer to Syria and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warns that any military intervention in Syria without a mandate from the U.N. would be a grave violation of international law.
The attack by snipers took place in the buffer zone area between rebel- and government-controlled territory.
"The first vehicle of the Chemical Weapons Investigation Team was deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified snipers in the buffer zone area," said Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
"As the car was no longer serviceable, the team returned safely back to the government checkpoint," the spokesperson said.
The eight-vehicle convoy included six vehicles carrying the U.N. experts, one with security forces and one ambulance.
Wassim al-Ahmad, a member of the Moadamiyeh local council, said five U.N. investigators eventually arrived at a makeshift hospital in the suburb, where doctors and about 100 people still with symptoms from the alleged chemical attack were brought in to meet with the U.N. team.
"They are late, they came six days late," he told AP via Skype from Moadamiyeh, referring to the time it took the U.N. team to arrive. "All the people have already been buried."
He also claimed that members of a pro-government militia known as the Popular Committees fired at the U.N. team.
Syrian activists and opposition leaders have said that between 322 and 1,300 people were killed in the alleged chemical attack in the capital's western suburbs.
Syria agreed Sunday to allow a U.N. investigation into the alleged chemical weapons attack last week in the suburbs of Damascus that killed hundreds. The White House official said the offer comes too late.
The White House has concluded that there is "very little doubt" that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in the attack, increasing the chances of a U.S. military strike.
The chemical weapons assessment is based on a variety of evidence and represents a broad consensus, according to a statement from a senior administration official.
The official requested anonymity; deliberations are ongoing and no decision has been reached about what to do.
U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria.
Navy ships are capable of a variety of military actions, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles as they did against Libya in 2011 as part of an international action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government.
In his remarks at a news conference Monday, the Russian foreign minister appealed to the U.S. and other Western power to avoid "past mistakes" with any intervention in Syria. Lavrov said he had spoken by telephone with Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday about the Syrian crisis.
President Obama was presented with a range of military options as he huddled with his national security team on Saturday to discuss Syria.
Military analysts say the likeliest option would be a punitive strike designed to send a message to the regime of Bashar Assad but that would not be designed to decapitate the regime or dramatically alter the course of the civil war raging there.
"Behavior modification would be the main objective rather than decisively shifting the situation on the ground or removing the regime," said Jeffrey White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Defense Intelligence Agency official.
Administration officials have been wary of any military intervention that would draw the United States into a lengthy commitment, and they have also expressed concerns that the collapse of the regime might lead to a failed state or the emergence of al-Qaeda affiliates.