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U.N. ready to deploy chem weapons inspectors to Syria in 24 hours

The United Nations is ready to deploy a chemical weapons inspection team in Syria within 24 hours, but Syria has yet to give the green light to enter the country, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in The Hague, Netherlands, where he is attending a review conference on the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The diplomatic standoff comes weeks after the government in Damascus invited the United Nations to Syria to investigate its claim that Syrian rebels used chemical weapons in an attack in the city of Aleppo. But the lack of progress suggests that Syria misjudged the U.N.'s willingness to carry out an investigation on Syria's terms.

So far, Syria has refused the U.N.'s request to expand the investigation to investigate the country's undeclared chemical weapons stockpile or to consider counterclaims by the Syrian opposition that it's Syrian forces that used chemical weapons against them. Britain and France have formally asked Ban to expand the mission to consider all claims, a move that was quickly denounced by Syria's principle big power ally, Russia, as a ploy to delay and derail the investigation sought by Damascus.

"Syria wants to limit the investigation to one site only," said a senior U.N. official. But the "secretary general feels he has a responsibility to make sure the team can investigate other claims."

Ban used his trip to The Hague to increase pressure on Syria to allow the inspectors in. Following a meeting with the Swedish head of the U.N. investigation team, Ake Sellstrom, Ban told reporters that the inspectors are ready to go.

"I can announce today that an advance team is now on the ground in Cyprus, the final staging point to undertake the mission in Syria," Ban said, adding that Sellstrom would be in Cyprus by tomorrow. "The United Nations investigation mission is now in a position to deploy in Syria in less than 24 hours. All technical and logistical arrangements are in place."

Ban said he is committed to investigating "all possible uses of chemical weapons in Syria. Now all we are waiting for is the go-ahead from the Syrian government for a thorough investigation to determine whether any chemical weapons were used in any location."

The decision to deploy inspectors comes just weeks after the U.N. withdrew most of its international staff from Damascus, citing the deteriorating security. Ban said that he is "assured" by Syrian commitments that "all security and safety will be guaranteed by the Syrian authorities." But he said the team would also rely on support from a U.N. security team.

The United Nations top disarmament official, Germany's Angela Kane, has been engaged in intensive negotiations with Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Al Jaafari, over the inspectors' mandate. Last week, Reuters reported that Jaafari informed Kane in a letter that the U.N. would require only limited access to the location in Aleppo where they claimed chemical weapons had been used. He also indicated that the government wanted a say in the selection of international inspectors, a request that the U.N. rejected.

In today's remarks, Ban urged "the Syrian government to be more flexible on this matter so that this mission can be deployed as soon as possible," he said. "The longer we take, the harder it will be to gather samples and evidence."

"My position, as I have said this morning, is clear, that all claims should be investigated, without exception, without any conditions," Ban added.

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