UN says experts ready to go into Syria to probe reported chemical weapons attacks

U.N. experts are poised to move into Syria within 24 hours to investigate reported chemical weapons attacks in the country's civil war, but President Bashar Assad's government still has not given them the green light to enter the country, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday.

Ban told reporters in The Hague that an advance team is already waiting at a final staging post on Cyprus, while the U.N. negotiates "technical and legal" issues with Damascus.

All reports of chemical attacks "should be examined without delay, without conditions and without exceptions," Ban said.

His comments appeared aimed at increasing pressure on Assad's regime and ensuring that U.N. inspectors are given access to all sites of reported chemical weapons attacks and not just those Damascus wants them to see.

Ban said it is "a matter of principle" to investigate all allegations and not just a case in which Syria alleges that rebels used poison gas.

"I am hopeful we will be able to finish this as soon as possible, and I urge the Syrian government to be more flexible so this commission can be deployed as soon as possible," Ban said. "We are ready."

Syria asked the United Nations last month to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack by rebels on March 19 on Khan al-Assal village in northern Aleppo province. The rebels blamed regime forces for the attack.

Britain and France followed up by asking the U.N. chief to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in two locations in Khan al-Assal and the village of Ataybah in the vicinity of Damascus, all on March 19, as well as in Homs on Dec. 23.

Ban was speaking at the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, which is sending a team of 15 experts to join the commission, along with World Health Organization staff.

The team is led by Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish professor who was a U.N. chemical weapons inspector in Iraq and now works at a research institute that deals with chemical incidents. Ban said he spoke to Sellstrom on Sunday night and he was now heading to join the advance party in Cyprus.

Syria is widely believed to have a large stockpile of chemical weapons, but it is one of only eight countries in the world that have not signed up to the chemical weapons convention, which means that it does not have to report any chemical weapons to the Hague-based organization that monitors compliance with the treaty.

Ban said the experts need to get to Syria as soon as possible to investigate the attacks.

"The longer we wait, the harder this essential mission will be," he said.