Gunmen attack UN inspectors’ vehicle

UN inspectors in Syria went to investigate sites of an alleged chemical weapons strike.

A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows people inspecting bodies of children and adults laying on the ground as Syrian rebels claim they were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, 2013. Picture: AFP

BEIRUT - Unidentified snipers shot at and damaged a vehicle being used by UN chemical weapons investigators in Damascus on Monday as they sought to reach the site of a suspected poison gas attack, a UN spokesman said.

"The first vehicle of the Chemical Weapons Investigation Team was deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified snipers in the buffer zone area," the spokesperson said, adding the car was no longer serviceable and a replacement vehicle was being obtained.

The spokesperson added; "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."

The team was trying to visit one of the sites of a 21 August attack in which, doctors and opposition activists say suspected nerve agents killed hundreds of civilians in several outlying districts of the Syrian capital.

The UN investigation comes amid rising calls by Western powers for reprisals against President Bashar al-Assad's government, who they say was responsible for the attack.

Syria agreed on Sunday to allow the inspectors to visit the sites. But the United States and its allies say evidence has probably been destroyed by heavy government shelling of the area over the past five days.

Meanwhile, rebel forces took control of a strategic town in northern Syria on Monday, cutting off government forces' only supply route out of the city of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based monitoring group also said it had obtained a photograph showing the execution of Alawite cleric Badr Ghazal by hardline Islamist rebels, highlighting the growing sectarian bloodshed of the two and half-year conflict.

The Observatory said rebels took control of Khanasir, a town that sits on the government supply route connecting Aleppo with the central city of Hama.

The rebel gain will leave government forces besieged in Aleppo province, the Observatory said.

Further, south, residents in the central province of Homs said rebels also tried on Monday to retake the strategic town of Talkalakh, 4 km from Lebanon's northern border. Its capture would allow rebels in the Homs countryside to replenish their supplies.

For weeks, Assad's forces had been on the offensive in Homs, a province they consider vital to securing their hold from Damascus to the president's coastal stronghold. The coast is home to a large number of Assad's Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, who mostly support the president.