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OPCW: Fact-finding mission in Syria was ambushed, inspectors briefly held in rebel territory

FILE -- In this August 26, 2013, file Photo, a U.N. team, that is scheduled to investigate an alleged chemical attack that killed hundreds last week in a Damascus suburb, leaves their hotel in a convoy, in Damascus, Syria. In a statement issued Tuesday, May 27, 2014, by the chemical weapons watchdog that is overseeing the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons program, said a convoy of its inspectors has come under attack, but all are safe. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said that the inspectors had been traveling to the site of an alleged chlorine gas attack site when they were attacked. (AP Photo, File)

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FILE -- In this August 26, 2013, file Photo, a U.N. team, that is scheduled to investigate an alleged chemical attack that killed hundreds last week in a Damascus suburb, leaves their hotel in a convoy, in Damascus, Syria. In a statement issued Tuesday, May 27, 2014, by the chemical weapons watchdog that is overseeing the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons program, said a convoy of its inspectors has come under attack, but all are safe. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said that the inspectors had been traveling to the site of an alleged chlorine gas attack site when they were attacked. (AP Photo, File)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Members of an international fact-finding mission into alleged chlorine attacks in Syria were ambushed and briefly held by gunmen in rebel-held territory, the global chemical weapons watchdog said Wednesday.

Releasing details of the chilling attack on its inspectors a day earlier, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said a joint OPCW-United Nations convoy was first hit by a roadside bomb and then sprayed by automatic gunfire as it headed toward Kfar Zeita, a rebel-held village in Hama province some 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Damascus.

After the lead vehicle in the convoy was severely damaged in the roadside bomb blast, the remaining vehicles turned around and headed for safer territory only to come under attack in a built-up area by gunmen who sprayed the lead vehicle with automatic gunfire from close range, the OPCW said in a statement.

Occupants of two remaining vehicles "were briefly detained by some gunmen" but were released after the intervention by Syria's main opposition group, according to the OPCW. One driver sustained minor injuries.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad visited members of the international fact-finding mission at their headquarters in Damascus on Wednesday, calling the ambush "a brutal attack." He said terrorists were behind it, a term the government uses for rebels trying to oust President Bashar Assad from power.

The attack came despite the team negotiating a ceasefire with Syrian authorities and rebels.

Mekdad reiterated the government's commitment to providing security and safety for the team and said Tuesday's attack will not prevent the inspectors from conducting their mission "in an honest and evenhanded way."

The team is now back in Damascus and vowing to continue its mission, "using all possible means to gather information and data in order to establish the facts surrounding allegations of the use of chlorine in Syria," the OPCW said.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said the attack would not stop the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization from "raising its voice against the cruelty of use of toxic chemicals to kill and harm indiscriminately."

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Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.

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