UN experts take biological samples in Damascus

Western powers lay the groundwork for a possible military strike against Syria.

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — U.N. chemical weapons experts today took biological samples from several victims of last week’s purported poison gas attack east of Damascus, activists said, as Western powers laid the groundwork for a possible punitive military strike and the U.N. chief pleaded for more time for diplomacy.

Fear of a dramatic escalation in the two-and-a-half-year conflict prompted some 6,000 Syrians to flee into Lebanon over a 24-hour period, or more than six times the average daily flow.

A jittery Israel ordered a special call-up of reserve troops today as residents lined up at gas-mask distribution centers, preparing for possible hostilities with Syria.

A week after the purported chemical attack on rebel-held areas outside Damascus, momentum has been building for a possible strike by the U.S. and its allies against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon however said that no action should be taken until the U.N. chemical weapons inspectors finish their investigation.

“Let them conclude ... their work for four days and then we will have to analyze scientifically” their findings and send a report to the U.N. Security Council, he said today from The Hague. The U.N. said the analysis would be done “as quickly as possible.”

At the same time, Syria’s main allies Russia and Iran warned of dire consequences for the region if a military intervention is launched.

U.S. leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, have charged that Assad’s government fired deadly chemical weapons near Damascus last week that, according to the group Doctors Without Borders, have killed 355 people.

Syria, which sits on one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, has denied the charges.

The U.S. has not presented concrete proof of Syrian regime involvement in an alleged chemical weapons attack, and U.N. inspectors have not endorsed the allegations — though the U.N. envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said today that evidence suggests some kind of “substance” was used that killed hundreds on Aug. 21.

Today, the U.N. inspectors visited the eastern Damascus suburbs of Mleeha and Zamalka, activists said. Amateur video showed a convoy of five cars with U.N. markings, followed by armed rebels in pickups.

The video showed the inspectors visiting a clinic and interviewing a man through a translator. Two inspectors were present as a nurse drew blood from a man lying on an exam table. One of the experts is heard in the video saying he and his team members have collected blood, urine and hair samples.

The videos appeared consistent with other AP reporting, including Skype interviews with anti-regime activists.

One activist said the team took hair and skin samples of five suspected victims in Zamalka during a 90-minute visit. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of regime reprisals.

The U.N. team in Syria did not issue a statement about Wednesday’s trip.

The U.N.’s Ban, meanwhile, pleaded for more time to give diplomacy another chance to end the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people.

Marking the centenary of a venue for peaceful conflict resolution, he said: “Here in the Peace Palace, let us say: Give peace a chance. Give diplomacy a chance. Stop fighting and start talking.”

Britain was to turn to the Security Council today, with a resolution seeking to condemn the Syrian government for the alleged attack. Britain would seek backing for “necessary measures to protect civilians” in Syria under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, the office of Prime Minister David Cameron said.

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