UNITED NATIONS — Chemical weapons were used repeatedly in the Syria conflict this year, not only in a well-documented Aug. 21 attack near Damascus but also in four other instances, including two subsequent attacks that targeted government soldiers, U.N. experts concluded in a report released Thursday.
The report, prepared by chemical-weapons specialists and doctors who traveled to Syria to conduct interviews and collect samples amid active fighting, is the most detailed and comprehensive independent assessment of facts and accusations surrounding the use of chemical weapons in the conflict.
The experts, led by Swedish professor Ake Sellstrom, examined seven suspected chemical-weapons attacks and said it lacked information to corroborate the accusations at two locations.
It was the first time the United Nations asserted as fact that chemical weapons had been used on multiple occasions in the fighting between the forces of President Bashar Assad and the insurgents seeking to topple him.
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The report also indicated chemical-weapons use after world outrage over the Aug. 21 attack, which killed hundreds of civilians including children.
The inspectors’ limited mandate barred them from identifying whether the government or opposition fighters were responsible for any of the attacks.
Thursday’s report said evidence indicated chemical weapons were probably used in Khan al Assal outside Aleppo, Jobar in Damascus’ eastern suburbs, Saraqueb near Idlib in the northwest, and Ashrafiah Sahnaya in the Damascus countryside. In two cases, it found “signatures of sarin.”
The government and opposition accused each other of using chemical weapons at Khan al Assal and the report said none of the parties in Syria denied their use in the village.
In an initial report Sept. 16, Sellstrom’s team concluded that evidence collected in the Ghouta near Damascus after an Aug. 21 attack provided “clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used.” Graphic video footage showed dozens of people gasping for air and bodies lined up; the U.S. government said more than 1,400 people were killed.
The confirmed use of chemical weapons in Ghouta and the threat of possible U.S. military action, led to a U.S.-Russia agreement to destroy all Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014.
The destruction process, which the United Nations is helping to oversee, has been proceeding for two months and is considered a conspicuous success in a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and left millions displaced.
The experts said they collected “credible information that corroborates the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Khan al Assal on March 19, 2013, against soldiers and civilians.” The report said information from medical, military and health personnel corroborated the occurrence of rapid mass poisoning “by an organophosphorus compound.”
But the inspectors said the release of chemical weapons at the site couldn’t be independently verified because it lacked “primary information” on how the chemical agents were delivered and because environmental and medical samples weren’t scientifically collected, preserved and analyzed.
The U.N. mission said it collected evidence “consistent with the probable use of chemical weapons in Jobar on Aug. 24, 2013, on a relatively small scale against soldiers.” But it said it lacked information on the delivery system and the chain of custody for samples, and said therefore it could not “establish the link between the victims, the alleged event and the alleged site.”
At Saraqueb, the inspectors said they collected evidence “that suggests that chemical weapons were used … on April 29, 2013, on a small scale, also against civilians.” Again, they said they lacked information on the delivery system and the chain of custody for environmental samples.
The U.N. mission said it collected evidence “that suggests that chemical weapons were used in Ashrafiah Sahnaya on Aug. 25, 2013, on a small scale against soldiers.” But it said it lacked primary information on delivery systems and said samples collected by the U.N. experts one week and one month after the suspected incident tested negative.