Syria: UN Inspectors Find 'Valuable Evidence'

Chemical weapons experts have gathered "valuable" evidence on a suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus despite coming under sniper fire, UN officials said.

The attack came as David Cameron spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin amid increasing calls for international action over the alleged massacre. The Prime Minister has cut short his holiday and is expected to make a decision about recalling Parliament tomorrow.

The UN inspection team's lead vehicle was "deliberately shot at multiple times" as they left a government checkpoint during a visit to part of the Syrian capital where hundreds of people were reportedly killed, Martin Nesirky told Sky News.

None of the UN inspectors, who were dressed in body armour, was injured in the attack, which came after two mortar bombs landed close to their hotel. The vehicle's tyres and front window were damaged.

After the shooting, the UN inspectors were able to change vehicles and meet victims of the alleged chemical attack, taking samples for testing before returning to their hotel in Damascus.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon did not blame either side for the convoy attack but said he had told his disarmament chief Angela Kane to make a "strong complaint" to the Syrian government.

His spokesman Farhan Haq said in New York: "It was a very productive day and once (the team) has made its evaluations it does intend to continue its work tomorrow."

The team, led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, is "already gathering valuable evidence," he added.

The Assad regime said the inspections in Zamalka and Ein Tarma districts will prove allegations that chemical weapons were used against civilians, including children, were "lies".

But US Secretary Of State John Kerry said chemical weapons had been used and accused President Assad of destroying evidence.

Mr Kerry said the use of chemical weapons was "real and compelling" and that the US and its allies were compiling "additional information" on the suspected attacks.

He said: "For five days the Syrian regime refused to allow the UN investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them."

"Instead it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence. That is not the behaviour of a government that has nothing to hide."

White House spokesman Jay Carney added that there was "very little doubt" in the Obama administration's mind that the Syrian government was responsible for using chemical weapons.

The Syrian opposition claims up to 1,300 people were killed, while Doctors Without Borders said 355 people died in hospital from "neurotoxic" symptoms.

Mr Ban said the people of Syria deserved to know the truth, adding: "We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity."

The international community continues to consider its response to the crisis, with Foreign Secretary William Hague warning military action may be the only remaining option.

Mr Cameron will chair of a meeting of the UK's National Security Committee on Wednesday after discussing the crisis with President Putin by telephone, Downing Street confirmed.

Mr Putin disagreed with Mr Cameron's assertion that there was "little doubt" the attack was carried out by the Syrian regime, according to a spokesman.

Meanwhile, French politicians are preparing to meet "in the coming days" to decide whether to respond with force, according to the country's foreign minister Laurent Fabius.

There is mounting speculation that France, together with Britain and the US, could back limited airstrikes to demonstrate that deployment of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.

However, Mr Assad said military intervention by the US would fail.

"Failure awaits the United States as in all previous wars it has unleashed," the Syrian president said in an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestia.

Describing the chemical weapons accusations as "nonsense", Mr Assad added: "Would any state use chemical or any other weapons of mass destruction in a place where its own forces are concentrated? That would go against elementary logic.

"Accusations of this kind are entirely political and the reason for them is the government forces' series of victories over the terrorists."

Mr Assad received backing from two of his main allies, with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warning that the use of force without a UN mandate would violate international law.

Urging the West not to go down a "dangerous path", he said: "If anybody thinks that bombing and destroying the Syrian military infrastructure, and leaving the battlefield for the opponents of the regime to win, would end everything - that is an illusion."

Meanwhile, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed countries outside the Middle East for the turmoil and said states in the region backing the Syrian opposition would be damaged by the conflict.

"The main reason behind the status quo in the region is interference from outside the region," the state news agency Fars quoted Khamenei as saying in a meeting with Oman's Sultan Qaboos.