UN Secretary general Ban Ki-moon
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon making a press statement about the investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, March 21, 2013. Photo by AFP
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Reuters
A destroyed car in Homs, Syria. Photo by Reuters

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon said on Monday that investigators have been gathering and analyzing available information on alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria, but access to the war-torn country is needed for a "credible and comprehensive inquiry."

The issue of possible chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar Assad's government has become a crucial factor that could lead to the United States and other Western powers stepping up their involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Ban created a UN inspection mission, led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, in mid-March to investigate several claims of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, where more than 70,000 people have been killed in a two-year-old war.

But Syria has blocked unconditional and unfettered access by the UN mission, which has an advance team in Cyprus ready to deploy to Syria within 24 to 48 hours, and it is unlikely it will gain that type of access any time soon.

"On-site activities are essential if the United Nations is to be able to establish the facts and clear all the doubts surrounding this issue," Ban told reporters before meeting with Sellstrom at the United Nations in New York.

"A credible and comprehensible inquiry requires full access to the site where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used," Ban said. "I again urge Syrian authorities to allow the investigation to proceed without delay and without conditions."

Ban said that in the meantime, the investigators were gathering and analyzing available information on the alleged attacks, which included possible visits to countries that said they had evidence of chemical weapons use.

A Western diplomat said British officials had shown Sellstrom evidence on which London based its assertion that there was "limited but growing" evidence of chemical weapons use by Syrian authorities.

But Sellstrom found the evidence inconclusive, said the diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Syria denies using chemical weapons. Assertions of chemical weapon use in Syria by Western and Israeli officials citing photos, sporadic shelling and traces of toxins do not meet the standard of proof needed for UN investigators, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which works on U.N. inquiries.

U.S. President Barack Obama and his aides have also stressed the need for a comprehensive U.N. investigation on the ground in Syria. U.S. officials said on Thursday the intelligence community believes with varying degrees of confidence that Assad's forces used the nerve agent sarin on a small scale against rebel
fighters.

"I take seriously the recent intelligence report of the United States about the use of chemical weapons in Syria," Ban said. Syria had asked the United Nations only to investigate what it says was a rebel chemical attack near Aleppo in March. The
opposition has blamed Assad's forces for that strike and also wants the U.N. team to look into other alleged chemical attacks by the government.

Western UN diplomats say allegations regarding the Aleppo incident and another attack in Homs in December are the most credible. Ban has repeatedly urged Syria to permit Sellstrom's team to inspect both locations.