UN inspections which could establish the truth behind accusations that 1,300 people were massacred using chemical weapons in Syria have been delayed by realpolitik and bureaucracy, it has been claimed.
The team of 20 specialists is stuck at the Four Seasons Hotel in the Syrian capital, just 12 miles from the site of one of the attacks, waiting for permission to gain access.
A formal request to the Syrian government to allow UN inspectors to investigate the latest alleged gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus was sent tonight, according to a statement from the office of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The UN was meeting again, but a separate statement it was due to release on the deaths has been diluted at the insistence of China and Russia, allies of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The US, Britain, France and Germany have demanded that the inspectors should be immediately allowed to go to the area affected, Ghouta, east of Damascus.
The leader of the UN's team of investigators, Ake Sellström, said: "It looks like something that should be looked into… We are in a place to do so."
But the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, insisted in New York that the "security situation does not permit" visits to the area for the time being. He also stressed that doing so would need the explicit consent of the regime and this might take time as it would require a change to the mandate under which the inspectors were allowed into Syria.
The team arrived on Sunday after months of negotiations to investigate three occasions when chemical agents are alleged to have been used.
They were at the village of Khan al-Assal, north of Aleppo; Ataybeh near Damascus; and the Homs region. Under their terms of operation, the inspectors will try to ascertain whether chemical weapons had been used, but will not apportion blame.
When the team arrived, Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, declared: "I assure you, on behalf of the Syrian Arab Republic, that we will fully co-operate with this team and provide it will all information we have and all facilities to reach a rational conclusion. Our basic target is for this team to find facts on ground."
The investigators were expected to be in the field within 24 hours of arrival in Syria. But there were initial delays due to security concerns before the reports of the mass deaths surfaced on Wednesday.
Today, residents of Khan al-Assal said they would not permit inspectors to enter their area until Ghouta was investigated.
Officials in Damascus have continued to strongly deny that the regime was responsible for the use of a weapon of mass destruction, claiming that video footage of dead and dying men, women and children was "terrorist propaganda".
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said discussions had been held for the UN team to be taken to Ghouta, but he could not say when this would take place as there were "logistical and security issues".
Specialists in chemical agents pointed out that delays in acquiring samples would mean that meaningful evidence would dissipate. Philippe Vincent, who has carried out research into the use of WMDs in conflicts, said: "Extremely valuable time is being lost here. Traces of Sarin, if that was allegedly used, do not last for long.
If there is an active cover-up then munitions used to carry out the assault can be removed. The video footage was quite graphic and indicated symptoms of possible poisoning, but it was just footage at the end of the day; you need to have research on the ground."
The Russian government stated that it wanted the UN and the regime to come to an agreement as soon as possible for the inspections to take place. However the Kremlin claimed that opponents of President Assad may have carried out the killing to discredit him.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said the Russian government had "information" that rockets carrying toxic chemicals could have been fired from a rebel-held suburb.
"This all smacks of an attempt, at any cost, to establish grounds for forwarding the demands of the enemies of the regime to the Security Council," he said, pointing to the timing of "this crime near Damascus" and the arrival of the UN team as evidence of "premeditated provocation".
The French government declared that military force may be the response by the international community if it is proved that the Assad regime had carried out a chemical attack. But Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also ruled out putting any troops on the ground in Syria and failed to explain what form this force would take.
France, along with Britain, forced the lifting of the EU arms sanctions on Syria to enable weapons to be sent to the rebels. However, in the ensuing four months neither country has supplied weapons, sending humanitarian and "civic assistance" aid instead.
World reaction: Shock and condemnation
"The Secretary-General believes that the incidents reported yesterday need to be investigated without delay. A formal request is being sent by the United Nations to the government of Syria in this regard. He expects to receive a positive response without delay."
Statement from the office of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
"We need a reaction by the international community… a reaction of force."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius
"China's position is very clear. It does not matter what side in Syria uses chemical weapons, China resolutely opposes it."
Foreign Ministry statement
"It is clear that chemical weapons were used. It is clear that in Syria, only the Assad administration is in possession of this weapon. The whole world knows who has what amount of weapons. This is clear as day."
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag
"These accusations are so serious, so monstrous that it is necessary to enable a real examination before talking or speculating about consequences."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle
"The reported use of chemical weapons against… civilians is terribly disturbing. If verified, it will be a horrible addition to the roster of tragic crimes committed by the Syrian regime against the people of Syria."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
"If the use of chemical weapons is true, it has definitely been carried out by terrorist… groups, because they have proved in action that they refrain from no crime."
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
"The images that we have seen are nothing short of horrifying."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest
"The group of observers are already in place. [Their]… position was agreed upon in the UN Security Council. How can we object? We… have an interest in the investigation into what happened…"
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich
"We believe a political solution is the best way to end the bloodshed. However, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have said… many times we cannot rule out any option… that might save innocent lives in Syria."
Foreign Office spokesman