Also on Monday, the Syrian government rejected a request by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to allow international inspectors to have access to the whole country to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in the civil war.
The government is willing to allow the inspectors only into the village of Khan al-Assal in northern Syria, where an attack was alleged to have taken place on March 19.
Both the rebels and the regime have traded blame for the alleged attack, which has not been confirmed.
Speaking in the Netherlands, Ban said an advance team of inspectors is waiting in Cyprus, ready to move into Syria immediately to investigate the reported use of chemical weapons.
All reports of chemical attacks ‘‘should be examined without delay, without conditions and without exceptions,’’ Ban said. ‘‘The longer we wait, the harder this essential mission will be.’’
His comments appeared aimed at increasing the pressure on Assad’s regime and ensuring that U.N. inspectors are given access to all sites of reported chemical weapons attacks — not just those the Syrian government wants them to see.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry swiftly rejected the proposal, saying it would constitute ‘‘a violation of Syrian sovereignty.’’
‘‘The secretary-general, while in The Hague, asked for additional tasks that would allow the team to deploy across all of Syrian territory, which goes against what Syria had asked from the U.N. and shows bad intentions,’’ the ministry said in statement. ‘‘Syria cannot accept such maneuvers from the secretary-general of the U.N, taking into consideration the negative role played in Iraq which paved the way for the American invasion.’’
It added, however, that Syria is ready to grant inspectors access to Khan al-Assal.
Syria is widely believed to have a large stockpile of chemical weapons, but it is one of only eight countries in the world that has not signed up to the chemical weapons convention. That means it does not have to report any chemical weapons to The Hague-based organization that monitors compliance with the treaty.
Britain and France have followed up by asking Ban to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in two locations in Khan al-Assal and the village of Ataybah, in the vicinity of Damascus, all on March 19, as well as in Homs on Dec. 23.
The delay in getting to the scene will hamper investigators, said Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the United States.
‘‘It is going to make it a bigger challenge. But it doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel,’’ Smithson said in a telephone interview.
Investigators will likely go after two key sources of evidence — samples from the environment and from any possible victims or survivors of suspected chemical attacks.
‘‘When the environment has changed, that makes it that much more challenging to get a clean environmental sample,’’ Smithson said.
Lucas reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam, Bassem Mroue and Barbara Surk in Beirut, and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.