The United Nations on Wednesday said it has received clearance from Syria's government to visit three alleged chemical strike locations in the civil war-torn country, Agence France-Presse reported.
A 10-person task force headed by Swedish Scientist Ake Sellstrom "is preparing to depart within days," Martin Nesirky, spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said in Thursday comments reported by Reuters.
The locations to be visited include Khan al-Assal, a village now embroiled in frontline combat and previously the only site to which U.N. inspectors had been invited, AFP reported. President Bashar Assad's government contends rebels were responsible for a purported March 19 sarin nerve gas attack at the Aleppo district that left 26 people dead. The other sites on the preliminary visit list are Ataybah -- a location near Damascus where a March attack has been alleged -- and Homs, the focus of a possible December strike.
Damascus and the opposition have exchanged accusations of chemical weapons use while denying any such attacks by their own respective forces. The United Nations last week said it had received 13 claims of chemical strikes, with corroborating material provided by Damascus, Moscow and three Western governments.
One chemical-weapon expert said "it is a big step forward just to get the inspectors into Syria at all."
"The actual on-site evidence is probably cleaned up if there was good evidence to begin with. But it will likely give the inspectors access to autopsy reports and also living victims' firsthand accounts and that could very well be helpful," added Paul Walker, international program director of the environmental security and sustainability program of Green Cross and Global Green.
The Syrian government's chemical arms still appear "pretty secure," he added. "There have been no reports of any weapons stolen, no reports of any rebel groups having taken over a weapons depot."
Assad on Thursday said his forces' increasing military momentum made him confident that his side would prevail, the Xinhua News Agency reported. The Obama administration last month cited a finding that Assad's government had employed chemical arms in justifying a still-pending U.S. plan to arm rebel forces. Conventional attacks have been largely responsible for killing more than 100,000 people in the conflict, now in its third year.