DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A U.N. team tasked with investigating the Syrian regime's alleged use of chemical weapons near the capital Damascus last week left their hotel Monday, as world leaders suggested that an international response to the attack that is reported to have left hundreds dead was likely.
Meanwhile, President Bashar Assad denied in remarks published Monday his troops used chemical weapons during the fighting in the rebel-held suburb.
An Associated Press photographer saw U.N. team members wearing body armor leaving their hotel in Damascus in seven SUVs. It was not clear if the team was headed to the suburb where the alleged attack occurred.
The United States has said that there is little doubt that Assad's regime was responsible for the attack on Aug. 21 in the capital's eastern suburbs. The group Doctors Without Borders said 355 people were killed in an artillery barrage by regime forces Wednesday that included the use of toxic gas.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the eastern suburbs have witnessed a wide army offensive over the last week, but have been relatively quiet since Sunday night.
Mohammed Abdullah, an activist in the eastern suburb of Saqba, said the U.N. is expected to visit the rebel-held area on Monday and they will be under the protection of the Islam Brigade, which has thousands of fighters in the area.
The photographer said U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane saw them as they left but did not go with them on Monday morning.
Nearly an hour before the team left, several mortar shells fell about 700 meters (yards) from their hotel, wounding three people. One of the shells struck a mosque damaging its minaret, according to an Associated Press reporter on the scene.
Syrian activists and opposition leaders have said that between 322 and 1,300 people were killed in the alleged chemical attack on Wednesday.
Syria said Sunday that a U.N. team could investigate the site but a senior White House official dismissed the deal as "too late to be credible."
Speaking to reporters in the South Korean capital of Seoul, U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon said the mission is expected to "begin conducting on-site fact-finding activities" on Monday. He added that "every hour counts. We cannot afford any more delays."
"I demand that all parties allow this mission to get on with the job so that we can begin to establish the facts," Ban said. "The team must be able to conduct a full, thorough and unimpeded investigation. I have total confidence in their expertise, professionalism and integrity."
"If proven, any use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances is a serious violation of international law and an outrageous crime. We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity," he said.
Assad told Russia's Izvestia daily that the accusations that his troops used chemicals were responsible were "politically motivated."
"This is nonsense," Assad was quoted as saying in an interview published Monday. "First they level the accusations, and only then they start collecting evidence."
Assad said that attacking such an area with chemical weapons would not make sense for the government as there was no clear front line between regime and rebel forces.
"How can the government use chemical weapons, or any other weapons of mass destruction, in an area where its troops are situated?" he said. "This is not logical. That's why these accusations are politically motivated, and a recent string of victories of the government forces is the reason for it."
With France, Britain, Israel and some U.S. congressmen urging swift military action against Assad's regime if the use of chemical agents is confirmed, the U.N. team's conclusions could have a dramatic impact on the trajectory of the country's civil war.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said no decision had been made on a military intervention but that any response would be "proportionate."
"It will be negotiated in coming days," Fabius told Europe 1 radio on Monday. He said that the lack of a U.N. blessing was problematic, but that all options remain on the table.
"The only option that I can't imagine would be to do nothing," Fabius said.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said diplomatic pressure has not worked on Syria's government, adding that a response to the alleged chemical weapon use there is possible without complete unity in the United Nations Security Council.
Hague accused the Security Council of "not shouldering its responsibilities" over the Syria crisis, saying disagreements among the five members have prevented any action over Syria for too long.
A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said the government is prepared to recall lawmakers to Parliament ahead of schedule so that they could debate any action over Syria, although it would "reserve the ability to take action very swiftly if needed."
Also Monday, the German government suggested for the first time that it would support an international military response against Syria if it is confirmed that Assad's troops attacked opponents with chemical weapons.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said Monday that if U.N. inspectors confirm the use of chemical weapons, "it must be punished."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says Turkey would take part in an international coalition to move against President Bashar Assad's government if the U.N. failed to come up with sanctions to punish Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons. Turkey has been one of Assad's harshest critics.
Russia, who has been a staunch ally of Syria, said last week that the accusations against Assad could be a bid to get the Security Council to stand by the opposition and to undermine efforts to resolve the conflict by convening a peace conference in Geneva.
Assad said in the interview that a military campaign against his country will not succeed
"They can start a war but they will not know where it will spread or how it will end," Assad said. "Superpowers can launch wars but they cannot win them."
Asked what will the United States face if it intervenes militarily in Syria, Assad said "it will face what it suffered in all its wars from Vietnam until now. Failure."
In Syria, rebels captured on Monday the central town of Khanaser, cutting a major road that links the central province of Hama with the northern province of Aleppo, the Observatory and the Aleppo Media Center reported. The road was used to supply Aleppo with food as well as weapons.
Rebels control wide areas of Aleppo, that borders Turkey and the battle for Khanaser lasted several days, the AMC said.
The Observatory also reported that rebels bombarded a military academy in the central city of Homs Sunday night killing three cadets and wounding more than 50.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.