France claims it has evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria
GAZIANTEP, TURKEY // France yesterday claimed that laboratory tests had proven the use of sarin nerve gas near Damascus, while UN investigators announced that there are "reasonable grounds" to believe both the Syrian regime and rebels had used chemical weapons.
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said tests carried out by a French laboratory "prove the presence of sarin in the samples in our possession". France "now is certain that sarin gas was used in Syria multiple times and in a localised way", Mr Fabius said
Earlier, in a report by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria to the UN human rights council, investigators said there were "reasonable grounds to believe that chemical agents have been used as weapons".
The White House said yesterday it wanted to collect more evidence before declaring that sarin gas has been used in Syria.
"We need to expand the evidence we have ... before we make any decision," spokesman Jay Carney said.
Barack Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons would prompt the US to consider intervening.
Bashar Al Assad's government and its opponents have accused each other of using chemical weapons but the UN's commission said "it has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator".
The report noted four chemical attacks; on the Khan Al Asal neighborhood in Aleppo and Otaibeh, near Damascus, both of which took place on March 19, on the Sheikh Maqsood district in Aleppo on April 13, and Saraqab in north-western Syria on April 29.
A team of UN specialists, tasked with gathering evidence inside Syria over the various chemical weapons claims, has not been given permission to enter by the Syrian authorities.
They insist it only examine a site in Aleppo, where the regime claims rebels used chemical agents, while the UN has pushed for unrestricted access to all areas where chemical weapons allegations have been made.
"The witnesses that we have interviewed include victims, refugees who fled some areas, and medical staff," said Paulo Pinheiro, the chair of the UN commission of inquiry.
But Syria's ambassador, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, in a debate yesterday at the UN human rights council, questioned the "neutrality and professionalism" of Mr Pinheiro's panel.
Last week Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem ruled out granting the UN specialists the right to determine their own programme of research. "We will not allow teams of inspectors to come to Syria to do whatever they want," he said in a television interview.
The UN human rights team has also been denied access to Syria, instead collecting information from refugees and over Skype and telephone calls to people inside the country.
While the chemical weapons issue is highly charged politically, Carla del Ponte, a former war crimes prosecutor serving on the UN team, warned against excessive focus on the issue, given the sheer "violence and cruelty, the criminal acts and especially the acts of torture", taking place using conventional weapons.
"We have so many deaths in Syria now ... so please don't make the use of chemical weapons in Syria now the most important issue," she told reporters in Geneva, ahead of a presentation of the commission of inquiry's latest report.
More than 94,000 people have been killed, and many more than that wounded since the uprising began in March 2011, according to rights monitors.
"War crimes and crimes against humanity have become a daily reality in Syria where the harrowing accounts of victims have seared themselves on our conscience," the report said.
It also cautioned against sending more weapons into the conflict zone, saying that would increase the human cost of the war.
A European arms embargo on providing weapons to rebels has been lifted and although no arms have yet been sent, both London and Paris have said they reserve the right to supply weapons if negotiations fail.
Syria's ambassador to the UN human rights council, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, called into question the "neutrality and professionalism" of the report. It accused the Syrian army and its allies, including foreign fighters such as Hizbollah, of suspected "atrocities against women and children", murders, torture, and forced displacements, among other crimes.
Armed opposition groups were also accused of a long list of war crimes, including summary executions and torture, but the report stressed their violations had not reached the intensity and sheer scale of those committed by the regime.
The commission said conclusive findings about the deployment of chemical weapons could be reached only after testing samples taken directly from victims or the site of the alleged attacks. It called on Damascus to allow a team of experts into the country, saying lack of access continues to hamper its ability to fulfill its mandate.
Russian ambassador Alexey Borodavkin called for UN experts to be sent to Khan Al Assal in the Aleppo province, the site of one of the four chemical weapons attacks cited by the inquiry. In an apparent message to European countries considering arming Syrian rebels, the report warned that the transfer of arms would heighten the risk of violations, leading to more civilian deaths and injuries.
With additional reporting from Associated Press and Reuters