U.N. chemical weapons inspectors leave Syria

BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.N. chemical weapons inspectors investigating allegations of chemical and biological weapons use during Syria's civil war left Damascus on Monday after their second mission in two months, witnesses said. A convoy of four United Nations vehicles carrying the team departed from a central Damascus hotel around 1.30 p.m. (6:30 a.m. ET), and was expected to arrive in Beirut later in the day. Another team of U.N. experts, charged with starting the process of verifying and eliminating Syria's chemical weapons, landed in Beirut on Monday. About 20 of them arrived on a private flight from the Netherlands, a source at Beirut airport said, and are expected to continue on to Damascus this week. Their mission, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council last week, was hammered out by Washington and Moscow after an August 21 chemical weapons attack in Damascus prompted U.S. threats of air strikes against the Syrian government. Inspectors who were in the country at the time confirmed that sarin gas was used in the attack, which killed hundreds of people. President Bashar al-Assad's Western opponents said the inspectors' report left little doubt that his forces were to blame for the attack. Syrian authorities denied the accusation, and Russia has said the inspectors' report did not provide irrefutable proof that Assad's forces were responsible. "We have presented the evidence we possess ... that lead to the conclusion that this was done by the opposition. And we have serious suspicions that such attempts continue," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Kommersant newspaper. Lavrov said Russia is prepared to contribute cash to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to fund the weapons-destruction operation, but did not say how much and suggested Moscow's main contribution would be personnel. Michael Mann, a spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told reporters in Brussels that the EU is "happy to provide technical and financial support" but is awaiting an official request from OPCW. The inspectors who left Damascus on Monday investigated six other alleged cases of chemical arms use, including three reported around Damascus in the days after the August 21 attack. Restrictions on media access made it difficult to follow the inspectors' activity inside Syria, but the United Nations said they would issue a comprehensive report on their findings next month. (Reporting by Stephen Kalin in Beirut, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich)