UN rejects suggestion it's pulling out of Syria to allow strikes

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations on Saturday vehemently rejected suggestions that the world body was somehow stepping aside to allow United States air strikes on Syria, and said its humanitarian work in the conflict-ravaged country would continue.

"I have seen all kinds of reporting suggesting that the departure of the chemical weapons team somehow opens a window for military action of some kind," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters.

"Frankly, that's grotesque, and it's also an affront to the more than 1,000 staff, UN staff, who are on the ground in Syria delivering humanitarian aid and who will continue to deliver critical aid," he said.

UN experts arrived in the Netherlands with evidence gathered in their investigation of a poison gas attack in Syria.

Mr Nesirky repeated that the inspectors would return later to investigate several other alleged poison gas attacks that have taken place in Syria during the country's 2 1/2-year civil war.

He also responded to US Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks on Friday that the UN chemical weapons experts cannot provide any information that the US, which blames Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for last week's attack that Washington said killed hundreds, does not already have.

"The United Nations mission is uniquely capable of establishing in an impartial and credible manner the facts of any use of chemical weapons based directly on evidence collected on the ground," he said.

Mr Assad's government, like Russia, blames the rebels for last week's alleged chemical weapon attack.

UN diplomats told Reuters on Friday that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon explained to delegates from the five permanent Security Council members - Britain, China,France, Russia and the US - that it would take up to two weeks before the inspectors' final report is ready.

UN officials say the world body's findings will be important because they will be widely seen as irrefutable, in contrast to doubts that arise with intelligence in light of the erroneous information on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programmes that was used to justify the 2003 invasion.

The inspectors will determine only whether chemical weapons were used last week and in several other alleged poison gas attacks, not who used them. Mr Nesirky was asked why the UN does not expand the mandate to include naming those responsible for any chemical attacks.

"The mandate is the mandate. The team and the Secretary-General will abide by that mandate," he said. "The mandate is robust and provides for the United Nations to be able to provide for, in an impartial and credible manner, a picture of what happened."

He added that the mandate was derived from a UN General Assembly resolution.

"Let's not forget that these are scientists, technical and medical experts who braved sniper fire to go to collect samples and to interview witnesses and survivors," he said.

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