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The convoy of U.N. experts cross into Lebanon at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, eastern Bekaa valley, Lebanon, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. The U.N. experts investigating last week’s alleged chemical weapons strike outside Damascus left Syria early Saturday and crossed into neighboring Lebanon, departing hours after President Barack Obama said he is weighing “limited and narrow” action against a Syrian regime that the administration has bluntly accused of launching the deadly attack. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
U.N. experts leave Syria as U.S. edges toward strike
First Published Aug 31 2013 10:20 am • Last Updated Aug 31 2013 10:15 pm

Beirut • U.N. experts who collected samples from last week’s alleged chemical weapons strike outside Damascus left Syria for the Netherlands on Saturday, hours after President Barack Obama said he is weighing "limited and narrow" action against the Syrian regime his administration blames for the attack.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Obama not to rush into a decision. The Russian leader implied the chemical attack came from among the rebels, saying he was convinced it was a provocation carried out by those who wanted to draw in the United States.

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If the Americans have evidence to the contrary they should present it to the United Nations inspectors and the U.N. Security Council, he said. "If there is evidence it should be presented," Putin said. "If it is not presented, that means it does not exist."

Russia is one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s staunchest allies. Putin’s comments were his first on the crisis since the suspected chemical weapons attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21.

The U.N. inspectors spent three days this week touring stricken areas near Damascus and a fourth day interviewing patients at a government-run military hospital. They wrapped up their investigation Friday and left Syria on Saturday, via Lebanon.

The team then flew to the Dutch city of Rotterdam aboard a German government-chartered plane, the German Foreign Ministry said. An aircraft believed to have been chartered by the German government landed in Rotterdam on Saturday afternoon.

In Syria, rebels fighting to topple Assad said they plan to go on the offensive against his troops in attacks timed to coincide with the U.S. strikes.

"Zero hour begins the moment the first missile is fired," said Qassem Saadeddine, a senior rebel commander and spokesman for the rebels’ Supreme Military Council.

"As the (U.S.) strikes gets underway, we will launch attacks against military airports, command centers, missile bases and military checkpoints," the former army colonel told The Associated Press from his base in Turkey.

Several other rebel commanders based in the rebel-held suburbs of the capital, Damascus, confirmed they would exploit the U.S. action to try and advance on the capital, seat of Assad’s power.

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Still, some opposition fighters said they felt uneasy about the prospect of U.S. strikes on their country, calling the U.S. objectives vague and "suspicious."

The U.N. experts had taken blood and urine samples from victims as well as soil samples from the affected areas for examination in laboratories in Europe. The U.N. has said it will try to expedite its final report.

U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane is to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later Saturday on the investigation.

With the inspectors out of Syria, the looming confrontation between the U.S. and Assad’s regime moves one step closer to coming to a head. The Obama administration has made clear that it is confident in its assessment and could act before the U.N. releases the results of its probe.

Obama has said that if he opts for a military strike, any operation would be limited in scope and only aimed at punishing Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.

But U.S. action carries the potential to trigger retaliation by the Syrian regime or its proxies against U.S. allies in the region, such as Jordan, Turkey and Israel. That would be dangerous new turn for the Syrian civil war, which has already killed more than 100,000 people, forced nearly 2 million to flee and inflamed tensions across the Middle East.

While Obama long has been wary of U.S. military involvement in the conflict, the administration on Friday forcefully made its case for action. It accused the Assad regime of carrying out what it says was a chemical attack on Aug. 21 that killed at least 1,429 people — far more than previous estimates — including more than 400 children.

However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one of the main groups monitoring casualties in Syria, said Saturday it has only been able to confirm 502 deaths, identifying victims by name.

Its list is based on interviews with hospital officials and activists in the affected areas, said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory.

The Britain-based group, which draws its information from a network of anti-regime activists in Syria, urged the Obama administration to release the information its far higher death toll is based on.

Obama has said he has a strong preference for multilateral action, but France is so far his only major public ally.

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