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Syria to allow UN chemical weapon investigators to explore three sites

Published time: July 31, 2013 20:03
Edited time: July 31, 2013 23:21
A boy, affected in what the government said was a chemical weapons attack, is treated at a hospital in the Syrian city of Aleppo March 19, 2013 (Reuters / George Ourfalian)

A boy, affected in what the government said was a chemical weapons attack, is treated at a hospital in the Syrian city of Aleppo March 19, 2013 (Reuters / George Ourfalian)

Syria has agreed to let three sites undergo investigation by a team of UN chemical weapons experts to assess whether the accusations that the country employed the devices during the country’s two year civil war carry any weight.

“The Mission will travel to Syria as soon as possible to contemporaneously investigate three of the reported incidents, including Khan al-Asal,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's press office told Reuters in a statement.

The UN did not identify the two additional sites to be investigated. Access for that investigation was the subject of negotiations between the Syrian government and the UN disarmament chief Angela Kane as well as the head chemical weapons inspector Ake Sellstrom last week in the capital of Damascus.

The Syrian government claims that rebels were responsible for chemical weapons usage in the region while the rebels accuse the government of playing a role. Earlier this month, Russia submitted to the UN its analysis of samples taken west of Aleppo, where chemical weapons had allegedly been used in March.

“We submitted a full set of documents [to the UN]. That’s over 80 pages, including photographs and precise geographic coordinates [of places where samples were taken], procedures and results,” Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov pointed out.

Russia’s findings indicated that it was rebels behind the Khan al-Assal incident, in which more than 30 people died. The United States cast doubt on the Russian analysis saying its own intelligence services believed Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons, including sarin, “on a small scale against the opposition.”

However the evidence provided by the US, UK, and France did not meet standards, with Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN commission’s inquiry into rights violations in Syria saying that his commission was “very worried about the chain of custody of the substances.”

Those claims, and likely pressure from both the UK and France, are thought to be behind President Obama’s announcement that the US would be ramping up intervention in the conflict, including possible military support for Syria’s rebels. Those efforts have been delayed in Congress due to fears that arms could fall into the hand of al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist groups operating in Syria, including the al-Nusra Front.

The UN says it has received some 13 reports of alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. The investigation now to be undertaken by UN inspectors will be to establish if chemical weapons were used, rather than to determine who was actually responsible for the attack.

Damascus has asked UN investigators to visit Khan al-Assal on several occasions, while the UN was rejecting requests and demanding broad access across the country “without further delay and without any conditions,” according to Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky.

Earlier in April Syria’s Foreign Ministry compared UN efforts to broaden a probe into chemical weapons use to the organization’s role in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq by the US.

It is “at odds with the Syrian request. It shows there are hidden intentions...which violate Syrian sovereignty,” a government statement on state television said. “Syria cannot accept these manoeuvres.”