Syrian activists say trying to get samples from chemical strike to U.N.

BEIRUT Fri Aug 23, 2013 5:34am EDT

Activists look for dead bodies to collect samples to check for chemical weapon use, in the Zamalka area, where activists say chemical weapons were used by forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad in the eastern suburbs of Damascus August 22, 2013. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Activists look for dead bodies to collect samples to check for chemical weapon use, in the Zamalka area, where activists say chemical weapons were used by forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad in the eastern suburbs of Damascus August 22, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian activists say they are smuggling out body tissue samples from victims of an alleged chemical weapons attack outside Damascus and are trying to get them to a team of United Nations inspectors staying in a hotel a few miles away.

"The U.N. team spoke with us and since then we prepared samples of hair, skin and blood and smuggled them back into Damascus with trusted couriers," said activist Abu Nidal, speaking from the town of Arbin.

The opposition accuses President Bashar al-Assad's forces of firing rockets before dawn on Wednesday loaded which poison gas in the midst of a fierce offensive on the rebel-held suburbs that ring the capital.

The army has been pummeling the area, known as the Ghouta region, since Tuesday night with air raids and artillery strikes that could hinder access to the sites and potentially damage evidence. Chemical weapons experts say every hour counts - the longer it takes, the more likely evidence can be covered up or tampered with.

Only a few activists said they were confident that they had a contact who would be able to hand their samples to the U.N. inspectors.

Several activists in the area who spoke to Reuters said they had prepared samples to smuggle into the capital but were unable to find a way to access the monitors inside their hotel.

"We're being shelled and on top of that Ghouta is surrounded by regime checkpoints. But even that isn't a problem, we can smuggle them out," said activist Abo Mohammed, from the suburb of Harasta.

"The problem is the location of the U.N. committee in the hotel. They're under heavy guard and government minders."

Activists say that in addition to tissue samples they have taken photographs of bomb sites, soil samples, and written witness accounts.

Syria's uprising against four decades of Assad family rule has turned into a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.

Foreign powers have said chemical weapons could change the calculus in terms of intervention and have negotiated with Damascus to allow a U.N. team of experts to examine the site of three small-scale attacks where poison gas was allegedly used.

The United Nations is now seeking to expand the group's mandate to allow them to investigate the most recent attack, whose death toll ranges from 500 to more than 1,000 people.

Syria has given no response to the demands. On Wednesday it denied using chemical weapons, calling the claims "illogical and fabricated."

(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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