A convoy of chemical weapons inspectors and UN staff that was travelling to a site of an alleged chlorine gas attack in Syria has come under attack.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said they were all safe and well, and were travelling back to their operating base.
It did not say whether they had been kidnapped in Hama province, as the Syrian government earlier claimed.
OPCW director general, Ahmet Uzumcu, expressed his concern for their safety.
“Our inspectors are in Syria to establish the facts in relation to persistent allegations of chlorine gas attacks,” he said in a statement.
“Their safety is our primary concern, and it is imperative that all parties to the conflict grant them safe and secure access.”
The OPCW inspectors were trying to reach the rebel-held village of Kafr Zaita, where there have been six alleged chlorine attacks in two months.
The first report of the attack on their convoy came from the Syrian foreign ministry, which said six inspectors had been “kidnapped” along with their five Syrian drivers.
The state news agency, Sana, quoted a statement as saying that shortly after leaving their government escort on Tuesday morning in the village Tayyiba Imam, a bomb had exploded beside one of the four UN-marked vehicles in the convoy.
The remaining three vehicles then turned around and headed back to Tayyiba Imam, but two were “hijacked by armed terrorist groups” en route, the statement added.
The government and rebel fighters had agreed to a day-long truce to allow the team to examine the area.
The foreign ministry stressed President Bashar al-Assad’s commitment to allowing the UN-OPCW mission to investigate alleged chlorine gas attacks and to providing security in areas under its control.
His opponents sought to “abort the efforts of the mission and commit terrorist crimes against UN and OPCW workers”, it claimed.
Last month, the OPCW said it would be sending a mission to investigate the alleged use of chlorine in more than a dozen attacks in rebel-held areas of Hama and Idlib provinces since April.
In every case, barrel bombs were allegedly dropped from helicopters. After they exploded, casualties reportedly began displaying symptoms typical of chlorine poisoning, including sore eyes, irritated skin, breathing difficulties and bloody foaming from the mouth.
Several people have been killed, including children.
Activists said bombs containing chlorine were dropped on Kafr Zaita twice last week. They posted a video of what they said was a gas cloud floating through the village on Thursday. A man can be seen running away from the green-yellow cloud with a woman who is holding a cloth to her mouth.
The opposition has blamed the government, noting that only its forces are believed to have access to helicopters. But officials in Damascus have denied any responsibility and accused al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels.
Chlorine is a common industrial chemical, but its use as a weapon is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Syria signed the treaty last year after the nerve agent sarin was used in an attack on several suburbs of Damascus that killed hundreds of people.
Source : bbc