OPCW: Sarin Used in Syria 5 Days before Khan Sheikhoun Attack

The Hague- Sarin nerve agent was used in an ‘incident’ at a northern Syrian village in late March, five days before the deadly attack on Khan Sheikhoun that left more than 80 people dead, the world’s chemical watchdog has said.

“Analysis of samples collected (by the OPCW)… relates to an incident that took place again in the northern part of Syria on the 30th of March this year,” the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons told AFP in an interview on Wednesday.

“The results prove the existence of sarin,” Ahmet Uzumcu said.

The Khan Sheikhoun attack on April 4 was previously believed to have been the first use of sarin by the Syrian regime since the deadly August 2013 attack in and around Damascus which killed hundreds of people.

Two days after Khan Sheikhoun, the United States fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase from which it said the attack was launched.

At least 87 people including 30 children died in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, in the opposition-held province of Idlib.

But Uzumcu said sarin was used in the opposition-held village of Latamneh, some 25 kilometers south of Khan Sheikhun on March 30.

He said the OPCW’s fact-finding mission had retrieved soil samples, clothing and metal parts “which were sent to our laboratories and we received the results a few days ago”.

It is “worrying that there is some sarin use or exposure even before the April 4 incident,” he said.

Uzumcu pointed out that the OPCW’s fact-finding mission team was unlikely to visit the area, where fighting is still ongoing between Syrian regime forces and armed opposition groups.

But “the (fact-finding team) is making every effort to contact the victims,” Uzumcu said.

Syria’s regime has denied involvement and claims it no longer possesses chemical weapons after a 2013 agreement under which it pledged to surrender its chemical arsenal.

It says “Syria has not and will not use toxic gases against its people because it does not have them.”

UN war crimes investigators last month said they had evidence that Syrian forces were behind the attacks, the first UN report to officially blame the Bashar al-Assad regime.

In total, the OPCW is investigating as many as 45 suspected chemical attacks in Syria since mid-2016, the watchdog said in April. 

The JIM has already determined that Syrian regime forces were responsible for chlorine attacks on three villages in 2014 and 2015, and that ISIS militants used mustard gas in 2015.

Head of Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack Inquiry Appeals for Countries to Back Off

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London- An international inquiry aims to report by October on who was to blame for a deadly sarin gas attack in Syria’s Khan Sheikhoun in April, the head of the probe has said, as he appealed for countries to back off and stop telling investigators how to do their work.

While Edmond Mulet, head of the joint United Nations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inquiry, did not name any countries, diplomats said Russia regularly pressured the investigators.

“We do receive, unfortunately, direct and indirect messages all the time, from many sides, telling us how to do our work,” Mulet told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council on Thursday.

“Some of those messages are very clearly saying if we don’t do our work according to them … they will not accept the conclusions,” he said. “I appeal to all … let us perform our work in an impartial, independent and professional manner,” he said, adding the results would be presented in October.

Syrian-ally Russia has publicly questioned the work of the inquiry, which was created by the Security Council in 2015, and said the findings cannot be used to take UN action and that the Syrian regime should investigate the accusations.

The inquiry has so far blamed Syrian regime forces for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015 and ISIS militants used mustard gas in 2015. In response to those findings Western powers tried to impose UN sanctions on Syria in February but this effort was blocked by Russia and China.

The Syrian regime has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons.

Investigators are currently looking at two cases – the exposure of two Syrian women to sulfur mustard in an apparent attack in Um Hosh, Aleppo last September and a deadly April 4 sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun that prompted the United States to launch missile strikes on a Syrian air base.

In both cases an OPCW fact finding mission has already determined that chemical weapons were used. Western governments have blamed the Syrian regime for the Khan Sheikhoun attack, which killed dozens of people. Syria has denied any involvement.

Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States.

International Confirmation: Sarin Used in Syria, Ankara Makes Hints of New Operation

Moscow, Beirut, Ankara- The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed on Friday that banned Sarin gas was used in April’s chemical attack that killed dozens of people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.

The Hague-based watchdog said “the perpetrators of this horrific attack must be held accountable for their crimes,” but the investigation fell short to blame any party for the attack.

The OPCW report was sent to the UN Security Council for a joint investigation in order to find the suspects. A council meeting on July 5 is expected to discuss the findings.

US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley said in a statement: “Now that we know the undeniable truth, we look forward to an independent investigation to confirm exactly who was responsible for these brutal attacks so we can find justice for the victims.”

For his part, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “The exact responsibility for dropping the Sarin will now go to a joint investigative mechanism to be confirmed but I’ve got absolutely no doubt that the finger points at the Assad regime.”

However, the Russian Foreign Minister doubted the OPCW report, and said its “conclusions are still based on very doubtful data obtained from the same opposition and the same notorious NGOs of the White Helmets type, and not on the site of the tragedy.”

Meanwhile, Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to the coalition against ISIS, was holding talks in Ankara on Friday amid reports that Turkey could launch the “Euphrates Sabre” operation in the countryside of Aleppo, which means that Ankara plans to tighten the noose on the Kurdish-controlled city of Afrin.

McGurk’s visit also coincided with a phone call held between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the latest developments in Syria, the war on ISIS and the US decision to arm the Syrian Democratic Forces that include fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Separately, sources said that head of the Syrian regime Bashar Assad promoted his brother Maher to Brigadier General, with reports predicting that the latter would play a leading role in the “Revolutionary Guards.”

OPCW Confirms Sarin Used in Khan Sheikhoun Attack

A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

A fact-finding mission by the UN’s chemical watchdog, the OPCW, has confirmed that sarin nerve gas was used as a chemical weapon in the April 4 attack in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun.

“Based on its work, the FFM (fact-finding mission) is able to conclude that a large number of people, some of whom died, were exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance,” said the confidential report, parts of which were obtained by several news agencies.

“The release that caused this exposure was most likely initiated at the site where there is now a crater in the road,” it added.

“It is the conclusion of the FFM that such a release can only be determined as the use of sarin, as a chemical weapon.”

The findings by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will now be taken up by a joint UN-OPCW panel to determine whether Syrian regime forces were behind the attack.

At least 87 people including many children were killed in the attack that the United States, France and Britain have said was carried out by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The US made a retaliatory cruise missile strike days later against a Syrian airbase from where it said the chemical weapons attack was launched.

“I strongly condemn this atrocity, which wholly contradicts the norms enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention,” OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said in a statement on the Khan Sheikhoun attack. “The perpetrators of this horrific attack must be held accountable for their crimes.”

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson urged the international community to work together to bring to justice those responsible for the Khan Kheikhoun attack.

OPCW’s confirmation that sarin was used as a weapon “cannot be ignored,” Johnson said.

Although the report did not apportion blame, Johnson said that “the UK’s own assessment is that the Assad regime almost certainly carried out this abominable attack.”

“I urge our international partners to unite behind the need to hold those responsible for this atrocity to account,” he added.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement that she had the “highest confidence in the OPCW report.”

“Now that we know the undeniable truth, we look forward to an independent investigation to confirm exactly who was responsible for these brutal attacks so we can find justice for the victims,” she added.

The OPCW-UN joint investigative mechanism (JIM) has already determined that Syrian regime forces were responsible for chlorine attacks on three villages in 2014 and 2015, and that ISIS used mustard gas in 2015.

Russia, Syria’s ally, has dismissed the findings as not credible. In February, Moscow vetoed a UN resolution that would have imposed sanctions on Syria over chemical weapons use in the six-year war.

Russian-Iranian Bid for New Chemical Probe Rejected

The Hague- The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) rejected on Thursday, through a voting process, a Russian-Iranian proposal to form a new team to investigate the purported chemical attack against Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province on April 4.

The British delegation to the Organization said on its Twitter account: “The #OPCW Executive Council has overwhelmingly rejected the Russian and Iranian decision which attempted to undercut the FFM”, referring to the fact-finding mission.

The draft-resolution, which was submitted by Moscow and Tehran, and obtained by AFP, had called for a new investigation by OPCW “to establish whether chemical weapons were used in Khan Sheikhoun and how they were delivered to the site of the reported incident.”

The draft-resolution, however, overlooked the fact that the international body, based in The Hague, was already investigating the April 4 attack on Idlib province, which claimed the lives of 87 people, including many children.

It also called for investigators to visit the Shayrat airbase — bombed by the United States after the attack — to “verify allegations concerning the storage of chemical weapons” there.

The British delegation said on Twitter that the Russian move had “attempted to undercut” the OPCW’s existing fact-finding mission (FFM).”

“Needless to say – FFM investigation continues” and “the UK fully supports it,” it added.

Meanwhile, Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesperson Igor Konashenkov doubted the investigation, saying that western experts could not explain “how representatives of the White Helmets managed to work for such a long period of time and remain alive without gasmasks and special protection equipment.”

On Wednesday, OPCW said that sarin or a similar banned toxin was used in an attack in Idlib.

Reuters quoted the organization’s director, General Ahmet Uzumcu as saying that the results of the analysis “indicate that sarin or a sarin like substance was used”.

The finding was based on tests on bio-medical samples collected from three victims during their autopsies that were analyzed at two OPCW-designated laboratories, the OPCW said, according to Reuters.

Assad Maneuvers to Turn the ‘Chemical Table’

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Beirut, Ankara – As Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO), along with members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), were expected in Turkey on Thursday as part of their inquiry into the chemical attack that hit the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun last week, the regime of Bashar Assad sought to maneuver and turn the table by accusing the “International Coalition” of killing a large number of civilians in an airstrike on a village east the city of Deir Ezzor two days ago.

Directly following Assad’s comments, the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS denied the regime’s allegations and asserted that it did not launch any strike on Deir Ezzor at that mentioned time.

The Russian Defense Ministry said it has no information about the strike.

Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdel Rahman told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Sure, coalition forces launched airstrikes on Deir Ezzor, but we have no information about the killing of tens or hundreds of people, as the regime is claiming.”

OPCW said on Thursday that a primary assessment conducted by its experts confirms that a chemical attack took place in Khan Sheikhoun.

Assad however said an alleged poison gas attack blamed on his government last week in Idlib province was “100 percent fabrication” and was used to justify a US air strike later that week.

In an interview with AFP, Assad said Syria’s regime had given up all its chemical weapons in 2013 after an agreement made at the time and would not have used them anyway.

“Our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand-in-glove with the terrorists. They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack,” Assad said.

EU Imposes Sanctions on Four Syrian Soldiers for Use of Chemical Weapons

EU Imposes Sanctions on Four Syrian Soldiers for Use of Chemical Weapons

Brussels- The European Union (EU) imposed sanctions on Monday against four senior Syrian military officials accused of using chemical weapons on civilians, after Russia and China blocked similar measures at the United Nations.

The move marks the first time the EU has blacklisted Syrian officials for the government’s alleged use of chlorine gas during the six-year conflict although it previously accused one commander, Major General Tahir Hamid Khalil, of deploying chemical weapons as part of repressive tactics in 2013.

It has also targeted Syrian companies accused of manufacturing chemical weapons.

The four military officials, who the EU will name on Tuesday, will be banned from traveling to the EU and will be unable to access any assets in the bloc or its banks, according to a statement by the EU published by Reuters.

The EU measures take the number of people under its Syrian sanctions to 239, as well as 67 companies.

EU sanctions also include an oil embargo, restrictions on investments, a freeze of Syrian central bank assets held in the EU and a ban on exports of equipment and technology that could be used against civilians.

An investigation by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found Syrian government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks and that ISIS militants had used mustard gas, but Russians said that the results were inconclusive.

In February, Russia and China blocked a bid by the United States, Britain and France at the UN to impose sanctions over the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, saying it would harm peace talks.

The United States had already blacklisted 18 officials in January over the chemical weapons accusations.

Chlorine use as a weapon is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria joined in 2013.

The government of Head of Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad, who has been under EU sanctions since May 2011, has denied its forces used chemical weapons.

U.N. Demands Details from Damascus on Commanders Suspected of Using Chemical Weapons

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New York, London – The International Security Council will listen Thursday to a briefing by High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Kim Won-soo, who will provide updated information on joint mechanism between the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on investigations that started to determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The Council will also discuss on Thursday the report submitted by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, which is the fifth report prepared by Head of Security Council JIM Virginia Gamba and was issued on Monday.

A U.N. investigative panel has been pressing the Assad regime to hand over the names of commanders, military units and other entities suspected of carrying out chemical attacks in Syria, according to a report released Friday.

In its latest report to the Security Council, the joint panel of the U.N. and OPCW said it had formally asked Syria to provide details of air operations, specifically at two air bases from which helicopters carrying the chlorine bombs lifted off.

Investigators are seeking the “names of specific Syrian Arab Armed Forces units and any entity outside the Armed Forces” listed on flight plans, said the report by the U.N.-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM).

“Such information is of great importance, given that commanders are responsible for any assets under their control,” said the report.

The panel said it was awaiting further determinations from the OPCW, which carries out fact-finding missions to establish whether chemical attacks took place, but does not attribute blame.

Syrian Opposition Fears Russian Plan for Largescale Aleppo Offensive

Beirut- The Syrian opposition has expressed fears that Russia’s plan for a largescale offensive on the city of Aleppo has neared its launching date under the excuse that rebels are using chemical weapons in areas that fall under the regime’s control.

Meanwhile, the executive body of the global chemical weapons watchdog voted on Friday to condemn the use of banned toxic agents by the Syrian regime and ISIS, a source who took part in the closed session said.

Roughly two-thirds of the 41 members on the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), endorsed a text compiled by Spain, sources told Reuters.

An initial U.S. draft was replaced with a compromise text drafted by Spain, which dropped a reference to sanctions against those responsible for violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention, sources added.

The Russian military claimed Friday it has evidence of the use of chemical weapons by rebels in Aleppo.

“Experts from the Russian defense ministry have found unexploded artillery ammunition belonging to terrorists which contains toxic substances,” the military said in a statement.

“After rapid analysis in a mobile laboratory, we have determined that the toxic substances in the rebels’ ammunition are highly likely to be chlorine gas and white phosphorous.”

The ammunition was discovered in the 1070 district on the southwestern outskirts of Aleppo, the statement said.

Russian Major-General Igor Konashenkov said Moscow would now hand over the evidence to the OPCW and wanted The Hague-based body to urgently send a team to Aleppo to gather its own evidence.

The Syrian Coalition denied the Russian allegations, saying the only weapons Free Syrian Army and rebel groups “use in battles against regime forces and their allied foreign sectarian militias in Aleppo are light and anti-tank weapons.”

“The munitions referred to in the Russian allegations are used exclusively by the Assad regime,” it said in a statement.

Opposition activist Haitham al-Maleh told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that Moscow’s accusations are baseless.

“They come as part of false claims made by Moscow to launch a large operation in Aleppo,” he said.

“If that had not been the case, then why did Russia send its aircraft carrier to our territorial waters accompanied by frigates?” al-Maleh asked.

Syria submits more “detailed” list of chemical weapons

An officer of the Cape Ray, a ship equipped to neutralize Syrian chemicals docked at the naval base of Rota on Spain’'s southwestern coast on Thursday, April 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Alfonso Perez)
An officer of the Cape Ray, a ship equipped to neutralize Syrian chemicals docked at the naval base of Rota on Spain’’s southwestern coast on Thursday, April 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Alfonso Perez)
Beirut/The Hague, Reuters—Syria has submitted a “more specific” list of its chemical weapons to the global regulator overseeing the destruction of its stockpile after discrepancies were reported by inspectors on the ground, officials said.

Damascus agreed to give up its chemical arsenal after Washington threatened military action following the death of hundreds of Syrians in a sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus during Syria’s civil war last August. But Damascus is several weeks behind schedule in handing over its lethal toxins.

A diplomat said questions had been raised by member states at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) about the details of its chemical arsenal submitted by President Bashar Al-Assad’s government last year.

The officials said the original list had been based on estimates, not exact amounts of toxic agents found in storage and production facilities across Syria.

The joint UN/OPCW mission in Syria found “discrepancies between what they found, and what was on the original declaration”, one diplomat told Reuters.

OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan confirmed a revised list had been submitted. “For some of the stockpile, ranges of quantities had been provided. Now they are being replaced with specific amounts,” he said.

The exact amounts came to light after inspectors visited the sites, took inventory, and packaged the chemicals for transport to the port town of Latakia, he said. Official could not provide specific details about the discrepancies.

Syria initially reported to the OPCW having roughly 1,300 metric tonnes of toxic chemicals, including precursors for poison gas and nerve agents. Luhan said no new chemicals were added in the revised list.

As part of a deal reached with the United States and Russia last year, the Assad government agreed to abandon the weapons of mass destruction and destroy all chemicals in its possession by June 30.

Syria did not make public the exact list of chemicals, but officials have said it includes more than 500 metric tonnes of highly toxic chemical weapons, such as sulphur mustard and precursors for the poisonous gas sarin, as well as more than 700 metric tonnes of bulk industrial chemicals.

They are being loaded onto Norwegian and Danish ships in the Syrian port town of Latakia as part of a multi-million-dollar operation involving at least 10 countries.

The chemical weapons will be neutralized at sea on a specially-equipped US ship, the MV Cape Ray, while the bulk chemicals will be sent to commercial waste facilities in Finland, Britain and Germany.

But Syria has fallen several weeks behind schedule in handing over the chemicals, having shipped out nearly two thirds of the stockpile for destruction abroad.

After missing several deadlines, Syria submitted a revised plan to the OPCW, saying it would hand everything over by April 27, or within 10 days.

An official at the OPCW, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed a new list had been submitted, but said it was part of a routine reporting process.

“Sometimes information is not complete, or not in a format we require. It’s not extraordinary,” the official said. “But what they have submitted needs to be seen to come to any conclusions and I better not speculate about what’s in there.”