With a U.S. military strike looming, U.N. weapons inspectors left Syria ahead of schedule early Saturday for a dangerous predawn drive to Lebanon, carrying unknown evidence of what the U.S. says was a chemical weapons attack on its own citizens by the Syrian government.
The U.N. said Friday that the team had finished collecting samples from the site of the alleged attack but that a complete analysis would take time. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the five permanent Security Council members that it may be two weeks before final results are ready, diplomats said.
The inspectors had been expected to leave about 9 a.m. Saturday (2 a.m. ET), but they were seen leaving their hotel in Damascus, the capital about 5:30 a.m. in vehicles bound for Beirut, Lebanon. They declined to comment to NBC News as arrived at the Lebanese border.
The unexpectedly early departure came after U.S. Secretary of state John Kerry made a forceful case for U.S. action against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, saying the U.S. had a moral obligation to punish Syria for using chemical weapons.
Tension ratcheted up in the region Friday as it became clearer that President Barack Obama might be prepared to strike Syria unilaterally, in the face of objections from allies and many in Congress.
U.N. inspectors decide whether there was a chemical attack in Syria, but they won't be able to say who initiated it. Bill Neely reports.
Streets in and around the capital were deserted Friday night as the inspectors' scheduled departure approached — seen by many as something of a deadline for the government to resume all-out shelling of rebel positions.
Both sides have largely observed an unofficial cease-fire while the U.N. team remained in Damascus, but shelling explosions could be heard Saturday morning in Damascus a couple of hours after the inspectors left.