By Jan HENNOP
The Hague (AFP) Oct 4, 2017
Sarin nerve agent was used in an 'incident' at a northern Syrian village in late March, five days before the deadly attack on Khan Sheikhun, the world's chemical watchdog said Wednesday.
"Analysis of samples collected (by the OPCW)... relates to an incident that took place again in the northern part of Syria on the 30th of March this year," the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons told AFP in an interview.
"The results prove the existence of sarin," Ahmet Uzumcu said.
The Khan Sheikhun attack on April 4 was previously believed to have been the first use of sarin since the deadly August 2013 attack in and around Damascus which killed hundreds of people.
But Uzumcu said sarin was used in the opposition-held village of Latamneh, some 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of Khan Sheikhun on March 30.
"What we know at the moment is not much. Fifty people were reportedly injured. There were no deaths reported," he said.
He said the OPCW's fact-finding mission had retrieved soil samples, clothing and metal parts "which were sent to our laboratories and we received the results a few days ago".
It is "worrying that there is some sarin use or exposure even before the April 4 incident," he said.
- Troubling new information -
At the United Nations in New York, the Security Council met behind closed doors to discuss chemical weapons use in Syria and ongoing investigations by the JIM, the joint OPCW-UN panel tasked with identifying perpetrators of attacks.
French Ambassador Francois Delattre said the council was awaiting details of the Latamneh attack, but said the new information was "very troubling to say the least".
France and Britain said the JIM, which is due to submit its report on the Khan Sheikhun attack later this month, must be allowed to continue its work for another year amid fears that Russia may try to shut it down.
Two days after Khan Sheikhun, the United States fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase from which it said the attack was launched.
At least 87 people including 30 children died in the attack on Khan Sheikhun, in the opposition-held province of Idlib.
Uzumcu pointed out that the OPCW's fact-finding mission team was unlikely to visit the area, where fighting is still ongoing between Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups.
"The (fact-finding team) is making every effort to contact the victims," Uzumcu said.
- Damascus denies -
Syria's government has denied involvement and claims it no longer possesses chemical weapons after a 2013 agreement under which it pledged to surrender its chemical arsenal.
The OPCW earlier this year presented a report confirming sarin gas was used in the attack at Khan Sheikhun, but did not assign blame.
UN war crimes investigators last month said they had evidence that Syrian forces were behind the attacks, the first UN report to officially blame the President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Damascus has vehemently refuted the claims saying "Syria has not and will not use toxic gases against its people because it does not have them."
In total, the OPCW is investigating as many as 45 suspected chemical attacks in Syria since mid-2016, the watchdog said in April.
The JIM has already determined that Syrian government forces were responsible for chlorine attacks on three villages in 2014 and 2015, and that Islamic State jihadists used mustard gas in 2015.
Uzumcu told AFP that if the JIM is able to identify those responsible for the Khan Sheikhun attack, "they should certainly be held accountable, prosecuted and punished."
"That's the only way to keep strong the international norm against the use of chemical weapons," he said.
Syria's chemical arms: five questions for the OPCW
- Where do we stand with the OPCW's work in Syria? -
We have several times deployed our declaration assessment teams to different sites in Syria since the process was initiated in the spring of 2014. There were some gaps and inconsistencies which needed to be clarified. We recently met Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad and we insisted that for instance the scientific research centre in Damascus should be declared as part of Syria's chemical weapons programme. They have taken this step but there are still some missing aspects, especially in regards to the activities of this centre.
- What is the problem with the research centre?-
The Syrian side so far have denied the involvement of the centre in the chemical weapons programme whereas our experts believe that it was. They have accepted to declare parts of the centre, but there are missing elements in the declaration.
-Why did the OPCW not visit the Khan Sheikhun attack site?-
Since the attack on our fact-finding mission team at Kafr Zita in May 2014 we have not been able to deploy our teams due to security reasons. We did make serious efforts to deploy the team to Khan Sheikhun. However at the last moment the Syrian government provided us with samples collected from the impact site and as a result of this analysis we proved the existence of sarin. This corroborated the findings of our team from evidence collected from other sources. We decided it was not worth to go and take unnecessary risks.
-What roles do the OPCW and the JIM play in Syria?-
The OPCW's role is limited by the states parties to find out whether chemical weapons or toxic chemicals were used as a weapon in Syria. The JIM, (a joint OPCW-United Nations panel) which is completely independent, works on the basis of the OPCW's fact-finding mission (FFM) report. It has to identify those responsible. The JIM reports to the UN Security Council and is due to release its findings on the Khan Sheikhun attack by the end of this month or early in November.
-Will the JIM's findings be different to those of the OPCW?-
I don't think their findings will be different to that of the OPCW's fact-finding mission as to the use of sarin (at Khan Sheikhun). The challenge is of course to identify the actors of this attacks. The actors of such attacks should certainly be held accountable, prosecuted and punished. That's the only way to keep strong the international norm against the use of chemical weapons.
Beirut (AFP) Oct 3, 2017
The Islamic State group is under attack across the remaining parts of its self-proclaimed caliphate, but what happens to its thousands of fighters as their group loses grip on territory? Facing multiple offensives, the jihadist group has lost the Libyan city of Sirte, Iraq's Mosul and Ramadi, and is now on the verge of being ousted from its former Syrian stronghold Raqa. At its peak IS c ... read more
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