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U.N. chemical arms chief heads to Damascus next week

A portrait of Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom is seen in Umea in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Erik Hillbom/Scanpix Sweden
A portrait of Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom is seen in Umea in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Erik Hillbom/Scanpix Sweden

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The head of a U.N. chemical weapons investigation team, Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, heads to Damascus next week to discuss his probe into allegations that chemical arms have been used in Syria's two-year civil war, a U.N. spokesman said on Wednesday.

U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane will accompany Sellstrom on the visit, which is taking place at the invitation of the Syrian government, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

Sellstrom and Kane will be meeting with the Syrian foreign minister and technical experts, U.N. officials say.

So far Sellstrom's team has not been allowed into Syria due to diplomatic wrangling over the scope of access it will have. But Sellstrom has visited Turkey and received information from U.N. member states about alleged chemical attacks in Syria.

Syria has refused to allow the U.N. chemical investigation to visit anywhere but Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province, where Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government say rebels used chemical weapons in March.

The rebels deny the charge and accuse Assad's forces of repeated deployment of chemical warheads in Syria. The government says it has not used chemical arms.

The United Nations says that as many as 100,000 people have died in the Syrian war since March 2011. U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, told the Security Council on Tuesday that around 5,000 people are dying in Syria every month.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has insisted that the team be permitted to visit at least one other location, the city of Homs, site of an alleged chemical attack by the government in December 2012.

The United States, Britain and France have insisted that Sellstrom's team have unfettered access in Syria. Together they have reported around a dozen incidents of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, a senior Western diplomat said on Wednesday.

Last week Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin sharply criticized what he described as Western nations' "small propaganda storm in a glass of water" regarding allegations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its own people.

Syria is one of seven countries that has not joined the 1997 convention banning chemical weapons. Western nations believe it has caches of undeclared mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agents.

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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