SYRIA: UN Confirmed Chemical Weapons Use In Syria, But Responsibility Unclear

Head of the chemical weapons team working in Syria Åke Sellström (left), hands over the report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

The United Nations has found “clear and convincing evidence” of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. A team of experts confirmed that Sarin gas was used in an incident that occurred on 21 August in the Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus. In its report, however, the UN does not say if it blames the chemical attack on any of the parties of the war.

The report, delivered to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday and made public today, concludes that on the basis of evidence obtained during the investigation of the Ghouta incident,

“chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in [Syria], also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale.”

The team, lead by Swedish scientist Dr. Åke Sellström, also concludes in particular that the environmental, chemical and medical samples collected provide

“clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-air- rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah, and Zamalka, in the Ghouta area of Damascus.”

“This is a war crime,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.

The UN investigators examined blood, hair, urine and rocket samples. Mr Ban said 85% of the blood samples tested positive for sarin.

Full Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013 can be found here.

In its report, however, the UN does not say if it blames the chemical attack on any of the parties of the war.

A week ago, Human Rights Watch also published a report on the attacks on the two Damascus suburbs, in which it provided evidence that “strongly suggests” that Syrian government is responsible for the attack.

Now when the war in Syria is into its third year, the number of Syrian refugees passed the threshold of two million and it is expected to keep increasing, the UN has reported earlier this month.

Who is responsible – this is still the question

The UN report did not suggest any culpability.

Syria and Russia have blamed the August 21 attack on the rebels. In turn, the rebels, the US and other Western powers blame forces loyal to Assad for the Ghouta attack.

British, French and US envoys told reporters the UN report left no doubt that Assad’s government was responsible for the chemical attack. The opposition Syrian Coalition said the report “clearly shows that only the Syrian regime could have carried out these attacks.”

Russian UN envoy Vitaly Churkin countered that there was no scientific proof government forces were responsible for the attack: “We need to not jump to any conclusions.”

Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari did not respond to requests for comment on the report.

US Ambassador Samantha Power provided some details.

“We have associated one type of munition cited in the UN report – 122 mm rockets – with previous regime attacks,” she said. “We have reviewed thousands of open source videos related to the current conflict in Syria and have not observed the opposition manufacturing or using this style of rocket.”

British UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said the rocket samples examined had a payload of 350 liters (92 gallons), which was 35 times the amount used in the Tokyo subway attack in 1995.

“Mr Sellstrom confirmed that the quality of the sarin was superior both to that used in the Tokyo subway but also to that used by Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war,” he told reporters.

“This does not point to a cottage industry chemical,” said Lyall Grant, taking a swipe at earlier comments by Churkin. Churkin said in July that a Moscow analysis found “cottage industry” quality sarin gas was used in an alleged March 19 attack, which he blamed on the rebels.

The UN investigators studied five impact sites and were able to determine the likely trajectory of the projectiles at two sites: Moadamiyah and Ein Tarma.

Eliot Higgins, who blogs under the name of Brown Moses and has been tracking videos of weapons used in the Syria conflict, wrote that he has not seen the opposition using the munitions identified in the report: a variant of the M14 artillery rocket and a 330 mm caliber artillery rocket.

Rebels have seized all kinds of weapons from military depots across the country in the 2 1/2-year civil war that has killed over 100,000 people, according to the United Nations.

But Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert at Monterey Institute, said the August 21 attack bore “so many hallmarks of a military trained in chemical warfare doctrine” and not an untrained force. She said the army has chemical delivery systems the rebels lack.

The UN confirmation of sarin gas use on August 21 comes as France, Britain and the US agreed in Paris to seek a “strong and robust” UN resolution that sets binding deadlines on removal of chemical weapons.

Those talks followed a weekend deal on Syria’s chemical weapons reached by the US and Russia that could avert US military action to punish the government for August 21.

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