* Washington says there must be accountability
* Kerry: using chemical weapons on civilians is "moral
* Unidentified snipers fire at U.N. convoy
* Russia says U.S. intervention would be a grave mistake
* Evidence has been destroyed, U.S. and its allies say
(Adds Kerry statement)
By Erika Solomon and Khaled Yacoub Oweis
BEIRUT/AMMAN, Aug 26 U.N. chemical weapons
experts interviewed and took blood samples on Monday from
victims of last week's apparent poison gas attack in a
rebel-held suburb of Syria's capital, after the inspectors
themselves survived sniper fire that hit their convoy.
In a clear warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, U.S.
Secretary of State John Kerry said President Barack Obama was
consulting with allies and members of Congress and would decide
soon how to respond to the Aug. 21 attack.
"President Obama believes there must be accountability for
those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the
world's most vulnerable people," Kerry said, making clear that
Washington blames Assad for what he called the large-scale,
indiscriminate use of chemical weapons against civilians.
"The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of
women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons
is a moral obscenity."
Military chiefs from the United States and its European and
Middle Eastern allies met in Jordan for what could be a council
of war, should they decide to punish Syria.
Many hundreds of people died in Damascus suburbs in what
appears to have been the worst chemical weapons attack since
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fatally gassed thousands of Kurds in
U.N. investigators crossed the frontline from the centre of
the capital, which remains under Assad's control, to inspect the
Mouadamiya suburb, one of at least four neighbourhoods hit by
the poison gas last Wednesday before dawn.
The United Nations said one vehicle in its convoy was
crippled by gunshots fired by "unidentified snipers." The team
continued on after turning back for a replacement car.
"I am with the team now," a doctor who uses the name Abu
Karam told Reuters by telephone from Mouadamiya. "We are in the
Rawda mosque and they are meeting with the wounded. Our medics
and the inspectors are talking to the patients and taking
samples from the victims now."
Wassim al-Ahmad, an opposition activist, said members of the
Free Syrian Army umbrella rebel organisation and the
opposition's Mouadamiya Local Council were accompanying the
inspectors on their tour of the suburb.
"The inspectors are now examining victims being treated at a
makeshift hospital in Mouadamiya and are taking blood samples
from them," Ahmad said.
Video filmed at the site showed inspectors in black and blue
body armour and blue U.N. helmets walking through a street as
curious onlookers came up to watch.
They shook hands with men who appeared to be rebels wearing
camouflage vests, and were accompanied by doctors and residents.
The group descended into the basement of a building where they
were told injured survivors were being treated to protect them
from more shelling. Another video showed an inspector
interviewing a patient and taking notes.
Activists say at least 80 people were killed in Mouadamiya
when the district was hit with poison gas. Hundreds of people
also were killed in three other rebel-held districts - Irbin,
Ain Tarma and Jobar.
An opposition activist said a large crowd of people gathered
to air their grievances to the U.N. inspectors, who planned to
take samples from corpses.
The inspectors later returned to their hotel, and within an
hour residents reported that the shelling of Mouadamiya resumed.
The decision to proceed with the mission despite coming
under attack thwarted an apparent attempt to halt their work
before it began.
"The first vehicle of the Chemical Weapons Investigation
Team was deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified
snipers in the buffer zone area," the United Nations said in a
statement. "It has to be stressed again that all sides need to
extend their cooperation so that the team can safely carry out
their important work."
Syrian state television blamed rebel "terrorists" for the
shooting. The opposition blamed it on pro-Assad militiamen.
The inspectors had been stuck in a downtown luxury hotel
since the attack, waiting five days for government permission to
visit the scene a few miles away. They had arrived three days
before the incident, with a mandate to investigate earlier
reports of more limited chemical weapons use.
ASSAD TOO LATE
Kerry said Assad's decision to finally allow access was too
late to be credible. "That is not the behaviour of a government
that has nothing to hide," Kerry said.
Kerry said the U.N. inspectors could at most confirm that
chemical weapons were used, not who used them, but that it was
Assad's government that has such weapons and the means of
delivering them. He said Washington had additional information
on the attack that it would share soon.
Washington and its allies say they worry that the time that
has elapsed, and continuous shelling by Assad's forces against
the affected areas, could make it impossible for the inspectors
to collect evidence. The United Nations said Secretary-General
Ban Ki-moon was confident the team could get the data it needs.
Speculation has been mounting that Western countries will
order some kind of military response to an incident that took
place a year after Obama declared the use of chemical weapons a
"red line" that would require strong action.
In neighbouring Israel, citizens have been queuing up for
gas masks in case Assad responds to a Western attack by firing
on Israel, as Iraq's Saddam did in 1991.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said any operation would
be coordinated with allies.
"The United States is looking at all options regarding the
situation in Syria," he said. "We're working with our allies and
the international community."
British Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a holiday to
lead a top-level security meeting.
Obama, Cameron and French President Francois Hollande all
spoke to each other and other allies in the past few days in a
flurry of phone calls. Cameron also called Russian President
Vladimir Putin on Monday.
Several NATO countries have issued statements pledging a
response, although none has been specific about what is planned.
Top military officers of the United States, Britain, France,
other NATO allies and the main anti-Assad countries in the
region, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, met in Jordan on
Monday to discuss Syria, diplomats there said.
The conference was planned but took on new significance
because of the latest events, the diplomats said.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin
Dempsey, a co-host of the meeting with his Jordanian
counterpart, has been one of the voices in Washington urging
caution and emphasising the costs of a full-scale military
intervention in a war in the heart of the Middle East.
Obama, who withdrew troops from Iraq and is winding down the
conflict in Afghanistan, is reluctant to engage in another war.
He could look at limited options such as a missile strike to
punish Assad without dragging Washington deeper into the fight.
Assad denies the accusations that his forces used chemical
weapons and said the United States would be defeated if it
intervened in his country.
"Would any state use chemicals or any other weapons of mass
destruction in a place where its own forces are concentrated?
That would go against elementary logic," he told the Russian
newspaper Izvestia. "Failure awaits the United States as in all
previous wars it has unleashed, starting with Vietnam and up to
the present day."
Russia, Assad's main arms supplier and diplomatic defender
in the U.N. Security Council, says rebels may have been behind
the chemical attack. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said any
intervention in Syria without a Security Council resolution
would be a grave violation of international law.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius noted that Russia and
China would probably veto a U.N. Security Council vote to allow
strikes against Syria. But British Foreign Secretary William
Hague said it still would be possible to respond to a chemical
weapon attack without the Security Council's permission.
There are precedents. In 1999 NATO attacked Serbia, a
Russian ally, without a Security Council resolution, arguing
action was needed to protect civilians in Kosovo.
Turkey, a NATO ally and major backer of the opposition, said
it would join any international coalition even if a decision for
action could not be reached at the U.N.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, John Irish
in Paris and Katya Golubkova in Moscow; Writing by Claudia
Parsons; Editing by Bill Trott)