By Stephanie Nebehay
UNITED Nations investigators said yesterday they had “reasonable grounds” to believe limited amounts of chemical weapons had been used in Syria, and France said the nerve agent sarin had been deployed by the government.
Human rights investigators said they had received allegations that Syrian government forces and rebels had used the banned weapons, but most testimony related to their use by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Increasing reports from the battlefield of the use of chemical weapons have sounded alarm bells in the West, lending urgency to a new diplomatic push to end the two-year-old war that has killed 80,000. US Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that the use of chemical weapons was unacceptable.
France said it was certain sarin had been used on several occasions following tests it had carried out on samples recovered from Syria.
“There is no doubt that it’s the regime and its accomplices” that are responsible for use of the gas, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on France 2 television.
“All options are on the table,” he added. “That means either we decide not to react or we decide to react including by armed actions targetting the place where the gas is stored.”
Britain’s UN ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said evidence suggested the use of a number of different variants or combinations of chemical agents “sometimes including sarin, sometimes not”. Quantities were relatively small.
The United States wants more evidence about the use of chemical weapons in Syria before deciding how to respond, the White House said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States believes most chemical weapons in Syria remain under the government’s control and was “highly sceptical” of claims that the opposition had used them.
The UN commission said it examined four reported toxic attacks in Syria in March and April but could not determine which side was behind them.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used. It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator,” Paulo Pinheiro, who chairs the UN commission of inquiry, told a news conference in Geneva.
“The witnesses that we have interviewed include victims, refugees who fled some areas, and medical staff,” Pinheiro said.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition, responding to the Pinheiro report, said that it would hold all those involved in violations accountable and aimed to bring them to fair trial.
Assad’s government and its opponents have accused each other of using chemical weapons.
Syria’s ambassador, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, in a debate at the UN Human Rights Council yesterday, questioned the “neutrality and professionalism” of the panel.
“The war in Syria is a major catastrophe of our time,” Pinheiro told the Geneva forum. “Syria is in free-fall. Brutality has become a tactic of war,” he said.
UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon described the report as a “catalogue of atrocities”, his spokesman said.
By Stephanie Nebehay