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US a step closer to Syria strike

The UN weapons inspection team has pulled out of Syria.

FILE: A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows people inspecting bodies of people who Syrian rebels claim were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces. Picture: AFP

BEIRUT - A United Nations (UN) arms expert is expected to brief United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York later today on what exactly was discovered in Syria.

The team of experts drove up to Beirut International Airport on Saturday after crossing the land border into Lebanon by road earlier in the day. No Western intervention had been expected as long as they were still on the ground in Syria.

The departure of the inspectors opens the window for any kind of military action the US might decide to carry out either unilaterally or with anyone else who decides to join them.

The 20-member team arrived in Damascus three days before the attack on 21 August to investigate earlier accusations.

They visited the sites several times, taking blood and tissue samples from victims in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.Inspectors also took samples of soil, clothing and rocket fragments.

Washington says it does not need to wait for the inspectors to report, since it is already certain chemical weapons were used and convinced that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces were behind the attack.

On Friday, Washington unveiled an intelligence assessment concluding Assad's forces were to blame for the attack.

US President Barack Obama said the United States, which has five cruise-missile equipped destroyers in the region, is planning a "limited, narrow" military action to punish Assad for the chemical attack that Washington said killed 1,429 people.

"We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale."

After laying out the case in a televised speech, US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on Friday to the foreign ministers of European and Gulf allies, as well as the head of the Arab League.

US forces are likely to launch strikes jointly with France, which has strongly backed the use of force to punish Assad.

French President Francois Hollande said Syria needs to be held accountable for such an attack.

"The chemical massacre in Damascus cannot and must not go unpunished. Otherwise we'd run the risk of an escalation that would trivialise the use of these arms and put other countries at risk."

Ki-moon is expected to then brief the UN Security Council this weekend.

"REBEL PROVOCATION"

Britain also strongly backed action, but was forced to pull out of the coalition after Prime Minister David Cameron unexpectedly lost a vote over it in parliament on Thursday.

Turkey backs the use of force and Arab states in the region say Assad should be punished, although they have mainly stopped short of explicitly endorsing military strikes against him. Iran, which supports Assad, has warned of wider war.

Kerry said Washington must act to protect itself and its allies, including Syria's neighbours Turkey, Jordan and Israel, from future use of banned weapons.

Meanwhile, Syria and its main ally Russia say rebels carried out the attack as a provocation. Moscow has repeatedly used its UN Security Council veto to block forceful action against the Syrian leader and says any attack on Syria would be illegal and only inflame the civil war there.

Syria's Foreign Ministry repeated its denial that the government had used chemical weapons against its own people.

Washington says the Syrian denials are not credible, and the rebels would not have been able to launch such an attack.

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