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UN in Syria for gas attack inspection

United Nations said Damascus agreed to a ceasefire while experts inspect gs attack sites.

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 - UN inspectors left central Damascus on Monday to investigate sites of an alleged chemical weapons strike on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, a Reuters witness said, after calls from Western powers for military action to punish what may be the world's worst chemical attack in 25 years.

Syria agreed on Sunday to allow the inspectors to visit the site. 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. It said the offer to allow inspectors came too late.

The experts' mandate is to find out whether chemical weapons were used, not to assign blame, but the evidence they collect can provide a strong indication about the identity of the party responsible.

A car of security forces as well as an ambulance accompanied the six-car convoy of chemical weapons experts wearing blue UN body armour. They said they were headed to the rebel-held outskirts known as Eastern Ghouta, where activists say rockets loaded with poison gas killed hundreds of people early on Wednesday.

President Bashar al-Assad, who has been fighting a two and half-year revolt, said accusations that his forces used chemical weapons were politically motivated and warned the United States against intervening in his country.

"Would any state use chemicals or any other weapons of mass destruction in a place where its own forces are concentrated? That would go against elementary logic. So accusations of this kind are entirely political," he told the Russian newspaper Izvestia in an interview.

Activists in Ghouta said that rebels had also agreed to halt operations and several brigades would provide protection to the visiting UN team.

But as one activist spoke to Reuters by Skype, the sound of exploding mortar shells could be heard in the distance - highlighting the dangers and difficulties inspectors may face as they try to investigate.

DIPLOMATIC DISCORD

Syria's conflict has so far been met with international deadlock. The growing violence has killed more than 100,000 people, stoked regional sectarian violence, and revived Cold War-era divisions between Western powers and Russia and China

Washington has faced growing calls for action in response to Wednesday's attack, which came a year after President Barack Obama declared use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" which would require a firm response.

Russia, Assad's main arms supplier, says rebels may have been behind the chemical attack and said it would be a "tragic mistake" to jump to conclusions over who was responsible.

Iran, the regional Shi'ite Muslim power that has been bankrolling Assad against a revolt led by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, announced its own "red line," warning Washington of "severe consequences" if it intervened in Syria.

US officials stressed that Obama has yet to make a decision on how to respond.

France said on Monday morning that there had been no decision yet on military action.

"There has to be a proportional reaction ... and that will be decided in the coming days, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe 1 radio."All options are envisaged, the only one that is not on the table is to not do anything."

Underlining diplomatic difficulties in forging international agreement, he noted that Russia and China would probably veto a UN Security Council move to strike Assad, creating a potential problem under international law for any assault.

TURKEY READY

Turkey, a former Assad ally that is now a major backer of the opposition, said it would join any international coalition even if a decision for action could not be reached at the UN.

If the UN team obtains independent evidence, it could be easier to build an international diplomatic case for intervention. Former weapons investigators say every hour matters.