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Chemical Weapons Inspectors Escape Attack in Syria

BEIRUT, Lebanon — An international team sent to investigate allegations that chlorine gas had been used as a weapon in Syria’s civil war came under attack on Tuesday, forcing it to abort its mission to reach a village where numerous such attacks have been reported.

In a statement, the United Nations-backed Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said all of its investigators were safe and had headed back to their base.

The attack underlined how easy it is for combatants in Syria’s civil war to undermine the work of international agencies and highlighted the challenges of establishing the truth of chemical weapons allegations.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been working since last year to help Syria dispose of its chemical weapons under an agreement reached to avert threatened American strikes after a chemical attack that the Americans blamed on Syrian forces killed hundreds of people near Damascus in August.

The Obama administration has lauded the agreement for removing Syria’s chemical weapons without force, and the organization said last week that only 7.2 percent of Syria’s declared chemical weapons material remained in the country.

But anti-government activists say the deal has done nothing to slow the war since most of its more than 160,000 dead have been killed with conventional weapons. They have also accused the government in recent months of hitting rebel areas with chlorine gas, which is not normally considered a chemical weapon, to inflict misery on the rebels and their civilian backers.

The fact-finding mission was trying to reach Kfar Zeita, a village where a number of such attacks have been reported, when its vehicle was struck on Tuesday.

The Syrian government and the rebels blamed each other for the incident.

The government first reported the attack, saying in a statement from the Foreign Ministry that Syrian forces had provided a security convoy for four United Nations vehicles. But before they reached their destination, the Syrians said, they could no longer guarantee the team’s security and the team would proceed only at its own risk, which it did.

One of its vehicles was then hit with an explosive charge, the statement said, forcing its passengers to climb into the other three vehicles, only one of which managed to leave the area. The government said 11 members of the team had been kidnapped by “terrorist groups,” as it describes the rebels.

Anti-government activists in the area, however, said the government had staged the attack to prevent investigators from reaching the site. Akram Mahmoud, an activist in Kfar Zeita reached through an Internet call, said the local rebels had formed a committee to receive the investigators and accompany them to the local clinics. While they were waiting, they heard an explosion and contacted the inspectors, who said they were leaving the area.

It was unclear whether the inspectors would try again to visit the village.

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(via NY Times)