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March 25, 2013

UN to Temporarily Relocate Some Staff from Syria

by Margaret Besheer

The United Nations said Monday it is relocating about 50 of its international personnel from the Syrian capital after mortars fell near their hotel.

U.N. Spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters that a number of mortar shells fell near the Damascus hotel housing U.N. staff on Sunday and Monday. He said there was damage to the building and some cars, including a U.N. vehicle.  

The United Nation’s Department of Security assessed the situation and decided some personnel should be temporarily moved out of the country for safety reasons.

Those staffers are with the office of Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been trying to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis for several months.

Nesirky said the move is strictly for security reasons. “We are temporarily relocating some of the U.N. international staff in Syria out of the country. As part of that effort, most of the Damascus-based staff of the Office of the Joint Special Representative for Syria are being temporarily relocated to Beirut and the Joint Special Representative's main office in Cairo. All of the national staff of that office have been asked to work from home, until further notice,” Nesirky said.

He said the United Nations would continue to help the Syrian people work towards a political solution to the two-year old crisis and he noted that the U.N.’s humanitarian work assisting millions of Syrians would continue.

The U.N. says it has about 100 international and 800 national staff inside Syria.

Separately, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week he plans to launch an investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons inside Syria. Ban said the investigation’s initial focus will be the Syrian government’s March 19 allegation that rebels used chemical weapons near Aleppo.

Britain and France wrote the U.N. chief last week asking him to investigate three other incidents in which they believe the government used chemical agents.

While not directly saying those incidents would be investigated, he asked those two governments to provide more information and said he would remain “mindful of other allegations”.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin dismissed the Western allegations Monday, saying that many political goals are being pursued in Syria.

“We see that letter [from Britain and France] as nothing else as an effort at diversion, in order to delay and possibly derail an investigation of the March 19 incident. We believe that the allegation which was made by the Syrian government is the only credible allegation of the use of chemical weapons in the course of the crisis,” Churkin said.

Churkin also said that his government wanted the United Nations to include Russian experts in their chemical weapons investigation, but had been rebuffed by the Secretariat.

Moscow has remained very close to the government in Damascus throughout the two-year-long crisis.