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No access yet to Syrian chemical attack site -

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TIM PALMER: Despite talks with the Syrian government, UN inspectors in Damascus have not yet been granted access to the site of a suspected chemical attack believed to have claimed hundreds of lives, possibly more than a thousand.

The UN has now formally requested access to that area without delay as Syrian rebels continue to charge the Assad government with committing the atrocity.

And even Syria's ally, Russia, has urged the regime to agree to an inspection, suggesting rebels might have been responsible and that the situation must be clarified.

Europe correspondent Mary Gearin reports.

MARY GEARIN: A day has passed since the world saw horrifying images of an unfolding tragedy, but although UN inspectors are just a few miles away, they can't yet traverse the diplomatic distance.

The UN is sending a representative to lobby the Syrian government in person and more than 30 countries have called for the team's immediate access. But their options seem limited in the face of Syrian defiance.

The French foreign minister Laurent Fabius did toughen up the diplomatic language.

LAURENT FABIUS (translated): If it is proven for us, the position of France is that there must be a reaction. What does that mean, a reaction? Not to send soldiers onto the ground but a reaction of international condemnation, a reaction which could take the form of force.

MARY GEARIN: The US is refusing to talk of the so-called game-changing red lines. Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said "all red lines" have been crossed, but he didn't go so far as to suggest force, while Britain has moved no further from its long-held line that it can't rule out any option within international law that might save innocent lives in Syria.

Charles Duelfer is a former chief US weapons inspector. He says he feels sorry for the UN inspectors with their fingers on the trigger of an international crisis.

CHARLES DUELFER: The French foreign minister for example said that the vigour of their response will depend upon what the UN weapons inspectors say. These guys who are largely scientists and engineers are at the intersection of political science and physical science and that's a difficult balance to breach.

MARY GEARIN: Paul Schulte is the former director of proliferation and arms control at the British Ministry of Defence. He isn't holding out hope that the inspections would ever be granted, nor would they necessarily be accepted.

PAUL SCHULTE: Their standard style is to say no, to refuse to access, to not talk about things. It's what I've called a sort of wilfully autistic style. They just don't discuss things. And it's worked well for them.

MARY GEARIN: What exactly are the time frames for these inspections in order to be effective?

PAUL SCHULTE: I don't think there is a time frame. I mean technically earlier is better. There are different views and there is this kind of esoteric chemistry which is becoming very politicised I think, about what can be proven after a week or two or three weeks.

The question is not an easy one and I gather that when the Americans have said last year that they reached the firm government conclusion that chemical weapons had been used in Syria and by the Syrian regime, the details of the tests they applied to the materials that they'd got through their intelligence channels have not been disclosed and so the Russians and others feel under no obligation to accept their judgement.

MARY GEARIN: Khaled Erksoussi, head of operations for the Syrian Red Crescent, is simply frustrated about all this talk of inspections.

KHALED ERKSOUSSI: Let's slap everybody for now to wake up. Enough focus about who did what and what has been done. Let's do the one thing for the wellbeing of the Syrians truly and let the medical aid reach those people. Then you can investigate the way you like afterward.

MARY GEARIN: With no independent verification of the damage, the number of people still needing help in one corner of Damascus remains unknown.

This is Mary Gearin for AM.