UN arms experts, wearing a gas mask, inspect a site of an alleged chemical attack near Damascus.
UN arms experts, wearing a gas mask, inspect a site of an alleged chemical attack near Damascus. Photo by Reuters
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UN chemical weapons inspectors in Syria are investigating seven cases of alleged chemical or biological weapons use, including three incidents around Damascus after the August 21 attack which almost triggered U.S. air strikes.

The inspectors expect to finalize their work in Syria on Monday and issue a report by late October that will give more details of the August 21 incident which they have already said involved the use of sarin gas, a statement from the United Nations in Damascus said on Friday.

The United States and its Western allies said the initial report showed Damascus was behind the attack, which killed hundreds of people. President Bashar Assad's government has denied the accusation, blaming rebels instead.

The incidents also include an alleged chemical weapons attack in March in the northern town of Khan al-Assal, where authorities say rebels killed 25 people, including 16 soldiers. Rebels said government forces were behind it.

The two other cases from earlier this year both date back to April - one in the Aleppo district of Sheikh Maqsoud and another in the town of Saraqeb in the northern province of Idlib.

The three most recent incidents were in Bahhariyeh and Jobar, both east of central Damascus, on August 22 and 24, and Ashrafiat Sahnaya to the southwest of the capital on August 25, the UN statement said. The team returned to Damascus on Wednesday to resume its work and "expects to finalise its activities in the country by Monday," the statement said.

Meanwhile, the global chemical weapons watchdog will discuss Friday a disarmament plan for Syria that calls for inspections of the civil war-torn country's chemical arsenal to begin by Tuesday.

The draft decision of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) obtained by The Associated Press also authorizes the body to inspect "any other site identified by a State Party as having been involved in the Syrian chemical weapons program, unless deemed unwarranted by the Director-General."

That goes beyond usual practice as the organization has only previously inspected sites that have been declared by member states.

The draft, being discussed by the OPCW's executive council Friday night, calls for the organization's secretariat to, "as soon as possible and no later than 1 October, 2013, initiate inspections in the Syrian Arab Republic." And it lays out the target of destroying all of Syria's chemical weapons and equipment by "the first half of 2014."

The chemical watchdog draft to be discussed Friday comes a day after the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council agreed on the text of a resolution that demands that Syria abandon its chemical stockpile and allow unfettered access to chemical weapons experts. But if Syria fails to comply, the council will need to adopt a second resolution to impose measures under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows for military and nonmilitary actions to promote peace and security.

The combined OPCW and Security Council action represents a significant breakthrough and rare unity between Russia, which has supported Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, and the United States.

If the OPCW executive council approves the draft decision later, the Security Council could vote late Friday at the earliest on its resolution.

The OPCW plan says the organization should consider reporting any delay or lack of cooperation by Syria to the Security Council. The draft decision also sets out a clear and ambitious timeline for the verification and destruction of Syria's weapons and production facilities.

According to the plan, Damascus must, within a week of the decision being approved, provide more detailed information on its arsenal including the name and quantity of all chemicals in its weapons stockpile including precursor chemicals; the type of and quantity of munitions that can be used to fire chemical weapons; the location of the weapons, storage facilities and production facilities. And the destruction of all chemical weapons production and mixing or filling equipment has to be completed no later than November 1.

The decision calls on Syria to "cooperate fully with all aspects of the implementation of this decision, including by providing the OPCW personnel with the immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites in the Syrian Arab Republic."

The recent flurry of diplomatic activity was triggered by the August 21 poison gas attack, and President Barack Obama's subsequent threat to use military force.

When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad could avert U.S. military action by turning over "every single bit of his chemical weapons" to international control within a week, Russia quickly agreed. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed an agreement in Geneva on September 13 to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control for later destruction, and Assad's government accepted and quickly signed up to Chemical Weapons Convention that is policed by the Hague-based OPCW.