BEIRUT -- A convoy carrying a United Nations team investigating allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria was fired on Monday by snipers, forcing the group to turn back, the U.N. said.
The attack occurred on the team’s first day of work looking into controversial allegations of a poison-gas bombardment last week in the Damascus suburbs.
The team’s task involves the dangerous job of traveling from relatively secure, government-controlled areas of central Damascus to contested areas east of the capital where armed rebels are heavily active. The inspectors must enter what is in essence a war zone.
“The first vehicle of the Chemical Weapons Investigation Team was deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified snipers,” the U.N said in a statement issued from its headquarters in New York. “As the car was no longer serviceable, the team returned safely back to the government check point. The team will return to the area after replacing the vehicle.”
No U.N. personnel were injured in the incident, a spokesman said. The U.N. inspection team is unarmed.
[Updated, 6:50 a.m. PDT Aug. 26: Later Monday, the U.N. said the inspectors had managed to enter the zone allegedly struck by chemical weapons and had visited a pair of field hospitals. The team members have been meeting survivors and others and gathering evidence, the U.N. said.
The team’s mandate is limited to ascertaining whether chemical weapons were used, not to determine who may have used such substances, the U.N. says.]
The convoy carrying the 20-member U.N. contingent reportedly left a hotel in Damascus early Monday en route for the major site of last week’s alleged chemical attack.
The U.N. made no determination as to who was behind the sniper volleys, but called on all combatants to respect the neutrality of the mission and to withhold fire.
“It has to be stressed again that all sides need to extend their cooperation so that the team can safely carry out their important work,” the U.N. said.
The U.N. has provided little information publicly about the logistics of the mission or its security arrangements. The mission would presumably require security guarantees from both sides in the conflict.
In announcing the investigation, the U.N. said Sunday that the Syrian government had “agreed to provide the necessary cooperation, including the observance of the cessation of hostilities at the locations related to the incident.”
A major opposition group, the Syrian National Council, publicly pledged to support the U.N. inquiry and allow access to the inspectors. But the council is based outside Syria and has limited influence with the many armed rebel factions fighting on the ground inside the country.
Each side in the Syrian conflict has blamed the other for the alleged chemical bombardment that struck various zones outside Damascus on Wednesday. The opposition has said that hundreds of civilians were killed.
Outside experts who have watched video of the purported victims say the images are inconclusive, making it difficult to determine what exactly happened. The U.N. team is expected to collect soil samples as well as tissue, hair and other samples from reported victims.
The U.N. inspection effort has broad international support. Russia, a major ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, backed the U.N. investigation, as has the United States, which is supporting anti-government rebels and has called for Assad to resign.