Snipers hit UN Syrian search team
Snipers have fired on the UN convoy carrying a team investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but failed to deter them from their mission. The Syrian government immediately accused rebel forces of firing at the team, while their opponents said a pro-government militia was behind the attack.
Activists said the inspectors eventually arrived in Moadamiyeh, a western suburb of Damascus and one of the areas where last week's attack allegedly occurred. They said the team members spent three hours at a makeshift hospital, meeting doctors and taking samples from victims.
The United States has said that there is little doubt president Bashar Assad's regime was responsible for the attack. Activists say the action killed hundreds; the group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355 people. President Assad has denied launching a chemical attack.
The sniper attack came as support for an international military response was mounting if it is confirmed that Assad's troops used chemical weapons. France, Britain, Israel and some US congressmen have said such a response against the Syrian regime should be an option. Russia, meanwhile, said Western nations calling for military action have no proof the Syrian government was behind any chemical attacks.
A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said one of the UN vehicles was "deliberately shot at multiple times" in the buffer zone area between rebel and government-controlled territory. He said the car was "no longer serviceable" after the shooting, forcing the team to return to a government checkpoint to replace the vehicle.
The Syrian government said it "holds the terrorist gangs responsible for the safety of the United Nations team." The Syrian regime routinely refers to rebels fighting to topple president Assad as terrorists.
US Secretary of State John Kerry says chemical weapons were used in Syria and accused Assad of destroying evidence. Mr Kerry called last week's attack a "moral obscenity" that should shock the conscience of the world. He said the US has additional information about the attack and will make it public in the days ahead.
Meanwhile, Tony Blair has warned that allowing the enduring controversy over the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 to hold back military intervention in Syria could help produce a "nightmare scenario" for the West in the Middle East, . The ex-prime minister who took the decision for British troops to join the US-led action, who is now the Middle East peace envoy for the US, Russia, the EU and the United Nations, said it was vital to "take sides" against the Assad regime and in other regional disputes.
Drawing on his own experiences, Mr Blair wrote in The Times: "I know as one of the architects of policy after 9/11 the controversy, anguish and cost of the decisions taken. I understand why, now, the pendulum has swung so heavily the other way. But it is not necessary to revert to that policy to make a difference. And the forces that made those interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan so difficult are of course the very forces at the heart of the storm today.
"They have to be defeated. We should defeat them, however long it takes because otherwise they will not disappear. They will grow stronger until, at a later time, there will be another crossroads and this time there will be no choice."