The United Nations hopes that a team investigating allegations about the use of chemical weapons in Syria's civil war will deploy to the country as early as next week, U.N. diplomatic sources said on Wednesday.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday named Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom to head the U.N. team.
The United Nations said last week it would investigate Syrian allegations that rebels used chemical arms in an attack near the northern city of Aleppo, though Western countries want a probe of two additional rebel claims about the use of such arms. The opposition says the government carried out all three alleged chemical attacks.
Several U.N. diplomatic sources said on condition of anonymity the Ban hopes the team will arrive in Syria next week, though that may not be possible since the experts need to be assembled and approved and the investigation's mandate clarified.
"Whenever they get there, it will be the earliest possible date for them to arrive," a U.N. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Syria has accepted Sellstrom as the head of the investigative team and that the logistics and composition of the team were still being worked out.
"Of course, we hope the Syrians don't play games and prevent the team from accessing all sites of alleged chemical weapons incidents," a Western diplomat said.
Nesirky said the United Nations was still speaking with Syria about access for the team.
"It is obvious that to do this work you need unfettered access and that is why the secretary-general has underscored that in his communications (with Syria)," Nesirky said.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told Reuters that Damascus had promised to provide Sellstrom's mission with assistance.
"The technicalities will be negotiated in Damascus during the establishment of the Memorandum of Understanding similar to what had happened for General (Robert) Mood's Mission," said Ja'afari, referring to the brief U.N. mission last year to observe a failed ceasefire.
The inspection team will be composed of around eight to 10 experts, mostly chosen by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, U.N. sources said. The World Health Organization will also support the team.
The OPCW oversees implementation of the Convention on Chemical Weapons, an international treaty aimed at eliminating such arms. Syria is a not a signatory of the convention.
Russia said earlier this week that Russian and Chinese experts should be on the team, but diplomats said none of them will be from a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - but are expected to come from Nordic countries, Latin America and Asia.
The inspection team will be based in Beirut, they said, adding that its goal is simply to establish whether chemical weapons were used in Syria, not to say who used them. That is to ensure the neutrality of the mission, the sources said.
If an investigation adds credibility to the rebels' claims that the government has used chemical weapons, it would represent another blow to Assad's efforts to retain power. If it turned out the rebels have used them, it could make countries even more reluctant to support the rebels with money and arms.
Ban said last week that the investigation would initially focus on the Aleppo incident, in which the government and rebels accuse each other of firing a missile laden with chemicals, killing 26 people.
But he has told the council that he intends to broaden the investigation. In a letter to the Security Council last Friday, Ban said he had asked Britain, France and Syria for further information on the other alleged chemical attacks "with a view to verifying any alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria."
Western officials say there is no hard evidence of a chemical weapons attack, but there are signs that such arms have been used repeatedly in Syria. Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters on Tuesday that he submitted "further information" about those attacks to Ban's office as requested.
Diplomats and U.N. officials said they hoped the chemical inspection team would have a "deterrent effect" on anyone considering using chemical weapons in Syria.
If it is confirmed that chemical weapons were used in Syria, it would be the first use of such arms in the two-year-old Syrian conflict, which the United Nations says has cost 70,000 lives.
Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; editing by Cynthia Osterman and Jackie Frank