DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A senior United Nations team tasked with investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war began a mission to Damascus Wednesday, trying to hammer out with Syrian officials the terms for their investigation.
It is the first such trip by international experts, and the talks were expected to be thorny — focusing on about a dozen incidents in which chemical arms were allegedly used. The rebels, the U.S. and others have accused the government of using the weapons of mass destruction, while Damascus and its ally Russia have blamed the rebels.
The team was invited by the Syrian government to discuss the terms of a possible inquiry.
Damascus agreed that the U.N. investigate only one of the reported attacks — a March 19 incident in the northern village of Khan al-Assal in which rebels and the government accuse each other of using chemicals weapons — but rejected inquiries into other alleged attack sites in the central city of Homs, Damascus and elsewhere.
The U.S. and U.N. have called on President Bashar Assad’s regime to grant the United Nations team unfettered access to investigate all allegations of chemical weapon use.
Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom and U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane arrived from neighboring Lebanon for a two-day visit, during which they are set to meet with senior Syrian officials, the U.N. said in a brief statement issued in the Syrian capital.
The Assad regime is said to have one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including the mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin.
There are concerns that Assad might use them on a large scale, transfer some of them to the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group or that the chemical agents could fall into the hands of al-Qaida militants and other extremists among the rebels.
Khan al-Assal, on the southwestern edge of the embattled city of Aleppo, was under government control in March but was captured by the rebels earlier this week. Even if the U.N. team is granted access to Khan al-Assal by both sides, it may be difficult to find evidence from the attack because so much time has passed.
In June, the United States said it had conclusive evidence that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces. That crossed what President Barack Obama called a “red line,” prompting a U.S. decision to begin arming rebel groups, although that has not happened yet.
On Tuesday, U.N. Mideast envoy Robert Serry told the Security Council that the U.N. has received 13 reports of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria. He said Sellstrom’s team is studying this and other material.
“There is a growing body of limited but persuasive information showing that the regime has used and continues to use chemical weapons, including sarin,” said British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant.
Russia, Syria’s close ally, has called the chemical weapons allegations against Assad’s regime groundless, claiming Russian experts determined that Syrian rebels made sarin nerve gas and used it in the Khan al-Assal attack, in which 31 people died.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday Moscow was willing to make Russian documents on the subject public.
“We hope that those who have information about other instances of the use of chemical weapons will do so, too,” he said, speaking at a news conference with the foreign minister of Moldova.
More than 93,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict started in March 2011, according to U.N. estimates.
In violence Wednesday, state-run media said a volleyball coach who was a former national team player was killed in an ambush near Damascus.
The state news agency said 34-year-old Firas al-Eid, who coached the women’s national youth team, was killed when gunmen fired at his car as he was driving from Homs to Damascus late Tuesday.
A Syrian General Sports Federation official, Tareq Hatem, told SANA on Wednesday that “terrorists” were behind the attack, a term the government uses for rebels.
The countryside between Damascus and Homs, Syria’s third largest city, has recently been the scene of heavy fighting between government troops and rebels.
Activists said masked gunmen stormed a media center in the northern rebel-held town of Saraqeb Wednesday, kidnapping a Polish journalist and beating a well-known Syrian activist, Manhal Barish.
An activist near the town identified the journalist as Marcin Suder. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation.
Suder’s Polish agency, Studio Melon, said it had seen the reports but could not confirm he had been kidnapped.
Studio Melon’s Andrzej Wyszynski said Suder has been in frequent contact with the agency since traveling to Syria in early July and last corresponded via email on Tuesday. Wyszynski said Suder has worked in Afghanistan and other conflict zones, and was reporting from Syria as a freelancer.
Marcin Bosacki, a spokesman for Poland’s Foreign Ministry said, “We don’t have confirmation. We are urgently analyzing the matter.”
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas in Cairo and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland contributed to this report.