Swedish scientist to head U.N. Syria chemical weapons probe

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has named Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom to head the U.N. investigation into allegations that chemical weapons were used in Syria, Ban's spokesman said on Tuesday.

"He is an accomplished scientist with a solid background in disarmament and international security," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

It was not immediately clear who else would be on his team. Russia said on Monday that Russian and Chinese experts should be part of the investigation, but Moscow's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Russia would "most likely not" be represented.

Sellstrom was a chief inspector for UNSCOM, the U.N. inspection team that investigated and dismantled Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programs in the 1990s.

Sellstrom also worked with UNMOVIC, the U.N. group that returned to Iraq in 2002 and found no solid evidence Baghdad had revived its banned arms programs before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Nesirky said the investigation would be technical and not a criminal investigation, looking at whether chemical weapons were used and not at who may have used them.

The United Nations said last week it would investigate Syrian allegations that rebels used chemical arms in an attack near the northern city of Aleppo, but Western countries sought a probe of all claims about the use of such banned arms.

France and Britain wrote to Ban on Thursday to draw his attention to an alleged attack near Damascus, as well as one in Homs in late December. The rebels blame Syria's government for those incidents as well as the Aleppo attack.

Ban made clear on Thursday that the investigation would initially focus on the Aleppo incident, in which the government and rebels accuse each other of firing a missile laden with chemicals, killing 26 people.

In a letter to the Security Council on Friday, Ban said he had asked Britain, France and Syria for further information on the other alleged chemical attacks "with a view to verifying any alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria."

U.S. and European officials say there is no evidence of a chemical weapons attack. If one is confirmed, it would be the first use of such weapons in the two-year-old Syrian conflict, which the United Nations says has cost 70,000 lives.

(Reporting By Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)