Chemical weapons inspectors come under fire in Syria

Watchdog team on way to investigate chlorine gas attack claims are safe, despite bomb attack and kidnap rumours.

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DAMASCUS // A convoy of inspectors from the international watchdog overseeing the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons programme came under fire on Tuesday in Syria but all staff members were safe, the organisation said.

The statement came within minutes after Damascus said that armed men had abducted 11 people, including six members of a UN fact-finding mission and their Syrian drivers, in the countryside around Hama.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said its team was travelling to the site of an alleged chlorine gas attack site when the convoy was attacked.

The OPCW, which monitors the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and oversees the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, had sent a team to Damascus this month to investigate claims that chlorine has been used in the central Syrian region of Hama.

The OPCW statement was issued shortly after Syria’s Foreign Ministry announced the abduction of the 11 UN staff and Syrian drivers.

The ministry blamed rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Al Assad, accusing them of committing “terrorist crimes” against the UN staff and OPCW.

Following the incident, the OPCW director general Ambassador Ahmet Uzumcu expressed concern, repeating his call to all parties for cooperation with the mission.

“Our inspectors are in Syria to establish the facts in relation to persistent allegations of chlorine gas attacks,” Mr Uzumcu said. “Their safety is our primary concern, and it is imperative that all parties to the conflict grant them safe and secure access.”

The Syrian Foreign Ministry said the team was heading toward the town of Kfar Zeita where activists and Human Rights Watch reported gas attacks on April 11 and April 18 that killed two people.

It said the team left in four vehicles on Tuesday morning after the government agreed to a cease fire in Kfar Zeita between 8am and 6pm“to facilitate the work of this mission.”

After the OPCW team arrived in the village of Taibet Al Imam just before Kfar Zeita, it was informed of the government’s inability to provide them protection beyond that point, it said. But the team then decided to continue without the Syrian security forces toward Kfar Zeita, the ministry said.

The ministry added that one of the team’s four vehicles, which was only 2 kilometres away from Taibet Al Imam, was hit by a roadside bomb. The bomb forced the vehicle’s passengers to move to another car and to return to the village.

The ministry said only one vehicle arrived in the village, which is under government control, a fact that might have caused Damascus to issue the statement saying the rest had been abducted.

It is not unusual to have different version of events in the chaos of Syria’s civil war and the two statements could not be immediately reconciled.

* Associated Press