By BEN HUBBARD
New York Times News Service
BEIRUT — A high-ranking U.N. official on Saturday began her mission to press the Syrian government to allow investigators to visit the site of a suspected chemical attack near Damascus, while the government sought to blame the attack on the rebels.
The attack, in which anti-government activists say the government killed hundreds of people with poisoned gas Wednesday, could prove to be a turning point for Western involvement in the war. The government has denied involvement, and Russia, which supports the government of President Bashar Assad, has blamed rebels for the attack.
The U.N. official, Angela Kane, the high representative for disarmament affairs, was sent to Syria by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to urge the Syrian government to let a team of investigators visit the site. She did not speak to reporters after her arrival Saturday.
The team, which went to Syria to investigate three previous suspected chemical attacks, arrived in Damascus three days before the attack Wednesday. The United States, Russia and other countries have called on both the rebels and the government to allow the team access to the site.
While the Syrian government has not publicly responded to the demands, on Saturday it stepped up its efforts to blame rebels for the attack, first announcing on state-run television that its soldiers had found a tunnel filled with chemical compounds near the attack site and that some of the soldiers were choking and had to be evacuated.
Hours later, after broadcasting a news documentary called “The Yellow Wind” that accused the rebels of using such weapons in previous attacks, the channel showed images of Syrian soldiers exploring a tunnel and what it claimed was a rebel storeroom.
The images showed gas canisters, hand grenades, mortar rounds, bags of unidentified white power, gas masks and large plastic bottles in a concrete room. “Made in Saudi Arabia” was written on one of the plastic bottles, and the announcers said other items were made in Qatar and the United States. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are strong supporters of the Syria rebels.
The images did not show any soldiers choking.