THE HAGUE, Netherlands — They've endured repeated delays, unrelenting scrutiny and even snipers' bullets in Damascus. Now U.N. inspectors, who have been gathering evidence of a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria, are poised to return to the Netherlands in coming days, setting in motion a meticulous process of analyzing samples at specially accredited laboratories.
According to the team's U.N. mandate, the analysis will establish if a chemical attack took place, but not who was responsible for a deadly Aug. 21 attack that Doctors Without Borders says killed 355 people and included the use of toxic gas. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that Washington knows, based on intelligence, that the Syrian regime carefully prepared for days to launch a chemical weapons attack.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to get an initial briefing on the U.N. team's work this weekend from disarmament chief Angela Kane. The team is expected to leave Syria on Saturday, but it remains unclear exactly how long the process of examining samples will take.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the team has concluded its collection of evidence, including visits to field hospitals, interviews with witnesses and doctors, and gathering biological samples and environmental samples — and is now packing up and getting ready to leave Syria.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which provided most of the 12-strong team of inspectors, has stringent guidelines for handling and testing samples at a chain of special labs around the world to ensure it delivers unimpeachable results — which could have far-reaching ramifications once they are reported at the United Nations in New York.
"It has to be accurate. The procedure has to be absolutely rigid and well-documented," former OPCW worker Ralf Trapp told The Associated Press on Friday.