DAMASCUS, Syria -- U.N. experts collected samples and testimony Monday from Syrian doctors and victims of an alleged chemical weapons attack following a treacherous journey through government and rebel-held territory, where their convoy was hit by snipers.
As U.S. officials said there was very little doubt that Syria used chemical weapons, and Western powers stepped up calls for swift military action, President Bashar Assad's government vowed to defend itself against any international attack, warning that such an intervention would ignite regional turmoil.
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mikdad said in an interview in Damascus, "If individual countries want to pursue aggressive and adventurous policies, the natural answer ... would be that Syria, which has been fighting against terrorism for almost three years, will also defend itself against any international attack."
Support for some international military response was likely to grow if it is confirmed that the Assad regime was responsible for the Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburbs that activists say killed hundreds of people. The group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355.
Mr. Assad has denied launching a chemical attack, blaming rebels instead, and has authorized a U.N. team of experts now in Syria to investigate, but the United States called it a step that came "too late to be credible."
Snipers opened fire on the U.N. convoy, hitting one of the vehicles carrying a team on its way to investigate the Aug. 21 incident. Martin Nesirky, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said the team was safe. He said the car was "no longer serviceable" after the shooting, forcing the team to return to a government checkpoint to replace it. U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said the team plans to go out again today to do more sampling.
Activists said inspectors eventually arrived in Moadamiyeh, a western Damascus suburb, one of the areas where the alleged chemical attack occurred.
Moadamiyeh council member Wassim al-Ahmad said five U.N. investigators spent three hours at a makeshift hospital, meeting with doctors and victims still suffering symptoms of the alleged chemical attack and taking blood, hair and tissue samples before returning to Damascus.
"They came six days late," Mr. Ahmad said via Skype after returning from witnessing the hospital visit. "All the people have already been buried."