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UN Weapons Inspectors to Leave Syria by Saturday

A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Ain Tarma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, Aug. 29, 2013.
With the eyes of the international community fixed on their work, U.N. chemical weapons investigators carried out their third inspection Thursday in a probe of an alleged chemical weapons attack last week. It came as the U.N. chief urged world powers to hold off on possible military action against Syria until the team finishes its work.

The weapons inspectors have now made three visits to rebel-held suburbs of the capital this week - with a convoy of white U.N. vehicles travelling to the suburbs of Douma and Zamalka on Thursday. The visit follows initial inspections to Zamalka and Mleiha Wednesday, and one to Madhamiya on Monday.

Witnesses told Arab satellite channels that the inspectors took blood and tissue samples from survivors of alleged chemical weapons attacks last week. An opposition activist told Arabiya TV that most of the bodies from those attacks were “buried immediately afterwards, due to the lack of a refrigerated morgue.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told journalists in Vienna that the inspectors would leave Syria by Saturday. He said that the team will give him a report at the end of their two-week mission, originally scheduled to investigate previous alleged chemical attacks near Aleppo last March.

The Syrian government kept the U.N. inspectors waiting in Cyprus for days, while it argued over details of their mission, including which sites they could visit. Evidence in chemical weapons attacks deteriorates within hours, making it difficult to assess what took place.

Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari was quoted on Syrian state TV as saying that the U.S. and its Western allies were trying to pressure the inspectors into reaching a hasty conclusion by threatening military action:

He said the Syrian government would like to see the team continue its work freely and objectively and without any political or military pressure. He says a military threat against Syria aims to prevent the inspectors from carrying out their work and influence their conclusions.

The Syrian foreign ministry granted inspectors a two-week period to investigate alleged chemical attacks, with the possibility of extending that period by another two weeks if both parties agreed. It appears unlikely, however, that the U.N. will ask for an extension.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, said Thursday that his country would “combat any outside aggression that it was facing.”