Ban Ki-moon’s announcment that United Nations experts will depart on Saturday fuels speculation of armed intervention.
Ban Ki-moon has said the UN weapons inspectors investigating last week’s suspected chemical weapons attack will leave Syria on Saturday, one day ahead of schedule.
The announcement deepened anticipation over imminent air strikes. Under an agreement with the Syrian government, the UN team had until the end of Sunday to complete their investigation.
If they leave a day early, they will not be able to carry out the three other site inspections from earlier suspected chemical attacks they had initially intended to complete.
The move is reminiscent of similar hasty departures of UN weapons inspectors from Iraq over a decade ago, after receiving a tip-off from western intelligence agencies that US air strikes against Saddam Hussein’s regime were imminent.
The team was seen leaving its hotel in Damascus early on Thursday morning.
Speaking in Vienna, Ban said the investigators “should be allowed to conclude their investigation activities”.
However, the UN secretary general also said the investigators would report to him as soon as they left the country. It is not clear whether such an accelerated report will be possible before laboratory analysis of the samples the inspectors have collected.
UN officials had previously said a proper investigation could take another week at least.
The development comes amid uncertainty over the threat of air strikes, which US and UK officials had suggested would happen within days, probably by the end of the weekend.
That timing has been put in doubt by a parliamentary revolt in London by both the Labour party and Conservative rebels.
Downing Street has suggested it has received US assurances that the White House is willing to wait until Tuesday next week to give the House of Commons time for a second debate on British involvement in air strikes, but Whitehall sources have said it is possible the US could go ahead without Britain, possibly with France.
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