UN experts head to Damascus suburb, activists say

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — U.N. chemical weapons experts headed to a Damascus suburb on Wednesday for a new tour of areas struck by a purported poison gas attack, activists said, as the U.S. laid the groundwork for a possible punitive strike and the U.N. chief pleaded for more time for diplomacy.

U.S. leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, have charged that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government fired deadly chemical weapons near Damascus last week — though they have not presented concrete proof and U.N. inspectors have not endorsed the allegations.

Syria, which sits on one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, has denied the charges.

Still, world powers appear to be moving toward a strike against the Assad regime, including by readying possibly legal justifications.

Britain said it will put forward a resolution to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to condemn the Syrian government for the alleged attack.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said Britain would seek a measure “authorizing necessary measures to protect civilians” in Syria under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter. Military force is one of the options that can be authorized.

Any language that could be read as allowing a military strike is likely to face veto by Damascus allies Russia and China.

In Geneva, U.N.’s special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said any military strike must have U.N. Security Council approval.

Britain’s parliament is to hold an emergency session Thursday on a motion clearing the way for a British response.

The group Doctors Without Borders has said the purported poison gas strikes near Damascus killed 355 people.

The U.N. chemical weapons experts conducted their first field testing in the western Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh on Monday. They collected samples and testimony after a treacherous journey through government and rebel-held territory. Their convoy was hit by snipers but members of the team were unharmed.

On Wednesday, a convoy of seven U.N. cars left the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus. Before their departure, the experts looked at maps and were briefed by U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane and team leader Ake Sellstrom.

The team did not speak to reporters.

Three Syrian anti-regime activists, speaking on Skype, said the experts were in Eastern Ghouta, a large Damascus suburb affected by the alleged chemical attack. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of regime retribution.

The activists said the experts had crossed into rebel-held territory and were being accompanied by members of the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition group.

Meanwhile, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon pleaded for more time to allow the U.N. team in Syria to establish the facts and to give diplomacy another chance to end the Syrian conflict, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives in two and a half years.

Ban said the team already has already “gathered valuable samples and interviewed victims and witnesses.”

Brahimi, the U.N. envoy, said that “it does seem like some kind of substance was used” in last week’s strikes.

He said the Security Council, whose permanent members are bitterly divided over Syria, must not go “missing in action.”

Marking the centenary of a venue for peaceful conflict resolution at The Hague, Ban said: “Here in the Peace Palace, let us say: Give peace a chance. Give diplomacy a chance. Stop fighting and start talking.”

Two of Syria’s staunchest backers, Iran and Syria, warned of dire consequences if the U.S. and its allies attack in Syria.

Such strikes “will lead to the long-term destabilization of the situation in the country and the region,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said a Western strike would cause “regional chaos.” He said the U.S. should also “be worried about your illegitimate Zionist child in the region,” a reference to Israel.

In Israel, large crowds lined up at gas-mask distribution centers, amid speculation that Syria could hit Israel in response to any U.S. strike.

Maya Avishai of the Israeli postal service, which oversees gas mask distribution, said demand has tripled in recent days. About five million Israelis, roughly 60 percent of the population, now have gas masks, she said.

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Laub reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Yasmine Saker in Beirut and Mike Corder at The Hague, Netherlands contributed reporting.

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