Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 August 2019

Sarin gas confirmed in Syria chemical attack

Attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province on April 4 killed more than 90 people.

A civil defence member breathes through an oxygen mask, after the gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhun in April. Ammar Abdullah / Reuters
A civil defence member breathes through an oxygen mask, after the gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhun in April. Ammar Abdullah / Reuters

THE HAGUE // An investigation by the international chemical weapons watchdog confirmed that sarin nerve gas was used in a deadly April 4 attack on a Syrian town. But a report released on Friday stopped short of saying who was responsible.

The attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province killed more than 90 people, including women and children. It sparked outrage around the world as distressing photos and video of the aftermath were widely broadcast, showing quivering children dying on camera.

"I strongly condemn this atrocity, which wholly contradicts the norms enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said. "The perpetrators of this horrific attack must be held accountable for their crimes."

However, Russia immediately dismissed the findings. "We must state that (the report’s) findings are still based on rather questionable data," the foreign ministry in Moscow said in a statement. "It is not surprising that the contents of the report by the special mission of the OPCW are in many ways biased, which suggests that political motivation is present in the actions of this organisation."

The US and its allies blamed the Moscow-backed Syrian military for the attack and launched a punitive strike days later. Russia has suggested that rebel fighters were implicated in the attack, which the West is using it as a pretext for bringing about regime change in Syria. Syrian President Bashar Assad has denied using chemical weapons.

The findings of the investigation will be used by a joint United Nations-OPCW investigation team to assess who was responsible for the attack. The OPCW has scheduled a July 5 meeting of its executive council to discuss the matter.

After the report was circulated, the US state Department said, "The facts reflect a despicable and highly dangerous record of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime." Only some details of the report were released to the public.

Mr Assad’s staunch ally, Russian president Vladimir Putin, said earlier this month that he believed the attack was "a provocation" staged "by people who wanted to blame" Assad, and the

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the report does not back US claims that the sarin was dropped from aircraft.

"They don’t know how the sarin ended up there, yet tensions have been escalating for all these months," Mr Lavrov said in Moscow.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that while the report did not apportion blame, "the UK. ’s own assessment is that the Assad regime almost certainly carried out this abominable attack."

Russia also criticised the OPCW for not sending experts to the attack site instead of analysing samples from victims and survivors and interviewing witnesses.

The Syrian government joined the OPCW in 2013 after it was blamed for a deadly poison gas attack in a Damascus suburb. On joining, Mr Assad’s government declared some 1,300 tons of chemical weapons and precursor chemicals that were subsequently destroyed in an unprecedented international operation.

However, the organisation still has unanswered questions about the completeness of Syria’s initial declaration, meaning that it has never conclusively been able to confirm that the country has no more chemical weapons.

The investigative team responsible for the report has previously concluded "with a high degree of confidence" that chlorine and sulphur mustard, commonly known as mustard gas, had been used as weapons in Syria.

* Associated Press and Agence France Presse

Updated: July 1, 2017 07:50 AM