The Associated Press
DAMASCUS, Syria — Snipers opened fire Monday at a U.N. vehicle carrying a team investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in Damascus, a U.N. spokesman said. The Syrian government accused the rebels of firing at the team, while a rebel representative said a pro-government militia was behind the attack.
Activists said the team later arrived in Moadamiyeh, a western suburb of the capital and one of the areas where last week's attack allegedly occurred. They said the team was meeting with doctors and victims at a makeshift hospital.
The United States has said that there is little doubt that President Bashar Assad's regime was responsible for the attack on Aug. 21 in the capital's suburbs. Activists say the action killed hundreds; the group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355 people.
Monday's shooting came as support for an international military response was mounting if it is confirmed that Assad's troops used chemical weapons.
Martin Nesirky, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said the U.N. vehicle was "deliberately shot at multiple times" in the buffer zone area between rebel- and government-controlled territory, adding that the team was safe.
News of the sniper attack came only a few hours after an Associated Press photographer saw the team members wearing body armor leaving their hotel in Damascus in seven SUVs and heading to the site of the alleged attack.
The photographer said U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane saw them off as they left but did not go with them.
Nearly an hour before the team left, several mortar shells fell about 700 meters (yards) from their hotel, wounding three people. One of the shells struck a mosque and damaged its minaret, according to an AP reporter on the scene.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking with reporters after meeting with his Indonesian counterpart, said Monday the Obama administration was studying intelligence on Syria's purported use of chemical weapons and "will get the facts" before acting.
Hagel said Obama "is considering all different options" and that "if there is any action taken it will be in concert with the international community and within the framework of a legal justification."
Nesirky said one of the cars used by the team was "no longer serviceable" after the shooting, forcing the team to return to a government checkpoint to replace the vehicle.
"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," he said in emailed comments to The Associated Press.
The Syrian government said the U.N. team was subjected to fire by "terrorist gangs" while entering Moadamiyeh.
The government also says Syrian forces provided security for the team until they reached a position controlled by the rebels, where the government claimed the sniper attack occurred.
"The Syrian government holds the terrorist gangs responsible for the safety of the United Nations team," said the government statement broadcast on Syrian TV. The Syrian regime routinely refers to rebels fighting to topple Assad as terrorists.
Assad denied in remarks published Monday that his troops used chemical weapons during last week's fighting.
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."
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