UNITED NATIONS - A United Nations team investigating a chemical weapons attack last month in Syria has found that sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent, was used, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling it a “war crime”
“In particular, the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Amalaka in the Ghouta area of Damascus,” a 38-page report, which was presented to the UN chief on Sunday night, said. Chemical weapons “were used on a relatively large scale,” the report said.
The inspection team, led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, was mandated to report on whether chemical weapons were used in the August 21 attack and, if so, which chemical agents were used—not on who was responsible.
The rebels and their Western and Arab supporters blame President Bashar Assad’s regime for the attack in the rebel-controlled area of Ghouta. The Assad regime, backed by Russia, insists that the attack was carried out by rebels. In a briefing to the UN Security Council, the secretary-general said the team interviewed survivors and first responders, and collected hair, urine and blood samples.
“The Mission also documented and sampled impact sites and munitions, and collected 30 soil and environmental samples - far more than any previous such United Nations investigation,” Ban said.
The report presents a stark picture of the horrific events of August 21. “Survivors reported that following an attack with shelling, they quickly experienced a range of symptoms, including shortness of breath, disorientation, eye irritation, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting and general weakness,” Ban said. “Many eventually lost consciousness. First responders described seeing a large number of individuals lying on the ground, many of them dead or unconscious.”
The weather made things worse. Falling temperatures at the time of the attack meant the downward movement of air, allowing the gas “to easily penetrate the basements and lower levels of buildings and other structures where many people were seeking shelter,” the secretary-general said. The UN mission has not completed its investigation of other alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria, Ban said. But there’s no doubt chemical weapons were used in the attack last month, he said.
“The United Nations Mission has now confirmed, unequivocally and objectively, that chemical weapons have been used in Syria.” “This is a war crime and a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other rules of customary international law. I trust all can join me in condemning this despicable crime. The international community has a responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable and to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare.”
Diplomats here were doubtful whether the report will affect events on the ground in Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed in 2½ years of conflict, the vast majority by conventional weapons, according to UN estimates. Even as the world awaited the report Monday, Russia differed with the United States about the agreement reached in Geneva at the weekend that calls for a UN resolution demanding that Syria’s chemical weapons be placed under international control.
RAFP adds: Turkey said it had downed a Syrian military helicopter on Monday, accusing the neighbouring nation of violating its airspace in the tense border region, amid a new international diplomatic push to end Syria’s civil war.
The Syrian MI-17 helicopter was detected two kilometres (1.2 miles) inside Turkish airspace and shot down five minutes later after failing to heed warnings, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters.
“It was continuously warned by our air defence but as the violation continued, it fell on Syrian soil at 2:25 pm (1125 GMT), having been hit by missiles from our planes,” which took off from their base in the eastern province of Malatya, he added.
Arinc said there was no information about the fate of its crew because the helicopter fell on Syrian soil.
The downing of the helicopter comes at a time of heightened diplomatic activity to resolve the Syrian crisis, which has spillover effects across the region.
Turkey has changed its military rules of engagement in response to repeated gunfire from the Syrian side towards the border areas, Arinc added.