THE HAGUE (Reuters) - An advance team of U.N.-mandated experts has gone to Cyprus and is awaiting permission from the Syrian government to investigate allegations of chemical weapons attacks, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday.
The move puts pressure on Syria to grant access to the team, as Damascus resists extending the investigation beyond a government claim that rebels used chemical munitions near Aleppo to include rebel claims that President Bashar al-Assad's government has used them.
Syria's ally Russia has backed Damascus against demands from Western powers that the probe be widened. Ban made clear that he wanted an all-encompassing inquiry, saying it was the "firm principle" of the United Nations that investigators be granted access to all areas where chemical weapons were allegedly used.
After meeting the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is providing scientists and equipment, in The Hague, Ban said an advance team was in Cyprus, ready to go to Syria within 24 hours.
"All we are waiting for is the go-ahead from the Syrian government to determine whether any chemicals weapons were used, in any location," Ban said.
"I urge the Syrian government to be more flexible, so that this mission can be deployed as fast as possible," he said. "We are ready, it is a matter of time."
Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the OPCW, said the full mission would comprise 15 experts, including inspectors, medical experts and chemists.
It will be headed by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, whom Ban also met in The Hague. Sellstrom was to join the advance team on Monday.
Ban said all serious claims regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria should be examined, and urged speed so that evidence was preserved.
"The use of chemical weapons by any side, under any circumstances, would constitute an outrageous crime with dire consequences," he said.
Britain and France want to broaden the probe to include Homs and Damascus, where rebels say state forces used chemical munitions. They also blame the government for the incident near Aleppo.
Russia, which has used its veto-wielding seat on the U.N. Security Council to counter Western pressure on Syria, has suggested that Western countries are using the specter of weapons of mass destruction to justify intervention in Syria, as they did in Iraq.
The OPCW, established to oversee the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, has helped to destroy roughly 80 percent of chemical weapons stockpiles declared by 188 members.
Syria is one of just eight countries not to have joined, along with Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia and South Sudan.
Syria is believed to have one of the largest remaining stockpiles of undeclared chemical weapons in the world, making it a priority security issue for Washington and its European allies.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)