UN weapons inspectors pull out of Syria early

The UN chemical weapons investigation team arrives in Damascus.
Louai Beshara | AFP | Getty Images
The UN chemical weapons investigation team arrives in Damascus.

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.

Throughout the day Friday, reporters saw Syrians flocking to stores for non-perishable food, candles and other necessities, but otherwise showing few signs of panic.

"We got used to the sound of shelling," Kheireddine Nahleh, 53, a government employee, told The Associated Press. "Death is the same, be it with a mortar or with an American missile. I'm not afraid."

One of the inspectors' last stops wasn't the site of the attacks. Instead, they went to a Syrian army hospital to interview soldiers, who the government insists were themselves the victims of poison gas.

The inspectors made no comment, and government minders didn't let journalists talk to the troops.

The U.N. team will decide whether a chemical attack actually did happen last week — but not who did it. The U.S. and many allies are convinced that the Syria army was responsible, but the government blames the rebels.

Charlene Gubash and Bill Neely of NBC News contributed to this report.