Chemical weapons inspectors safe after convoy attacked in central Syria
Syria inspectors and UN fact-finding group come under fire, but kidnap claim is denied
A convoy of inspectors from the international watchdog overseeing the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons programme came under fire yesterday, but all staff members were safe.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said its team was travelling to the site of an alleged chlorine gas attack site when the convoy was attacked.
The OPCW had sent a team to Damascus to investigate claims that chlorine has been used in the central Syrian region of Hama.
Syrian had earlier said that armed men had abducted 11 people, including six members of a UN fact-finding mission and their Syrian drivers, in the countryside around Hama.
The OPCW statement was issued shortly after Syria's Foreign Ministry announcement.
The ministry blamed rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, accusing them of committing "terrorist crimes" against the UN staff and OPCW.
After the incident, the OPCW's director general, Ambassador Ahmet Uzumcu, expressed concern, and repeated his call to all parties for cooperation with the mission.
"Our inspectors are in Syria to establish the facts in relation to persistent allegations of chlorine gas attacks," Uzumcu said. "Their safety is our primary concern and it is imperative that all parties to the conflict grant them safe and secure access."
The Syrian Foreign Ministry said the team was heading towards the town of Kfar Zeita, where activists and Human Rights Watch reported gas attacks on April 11 and April 18 that killed two people.
It said the team left in four vehicles yesterday after the government agreed to a ceasefire in Kfar Zeita between 8am and 6pm "to facilitate the work of this mission".
After the OPCW team arrived in the village of Taibet al-Imam, just before Kfar Zeita, it was informed of the government's inability to give them protection beyond that point, it said.
But the team then decided to continue without the Syrian security forces towards Kfar Zeita, the ministry said.
The ministry added that one of the team's four vehicles, which was only 2km away from Taibet al-Imam, was hit by a roadside bomb.
The bomb forced the vehicle's passengers to move to another car and to return to the village.
The ministry said only one vehicle arrived in the village, which is under government control.
This might be the reason Damascus issued the statement saying that the rest had been abducted.