Local Committee of Arbeen / AP Photo

Report reaffirms use of chemical weapons in Syria

Chemical weapons watchdog group does not say which side in the Syria conflict used chlorine gas

Al Jazeera has obtained a copy of a report by a chemical weapons watchdog that offers further evidence about the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The report by a fact-finding mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which deals with investigating the use of chemical weapons, includes eyewitness accounts of helicopters dropping barrel bombs with toxic chemicals.

Witnesses reported hearing helicopters before the attacks.

Western members of the U.N. Security Council blamed the Syrian authorities for the attacks as only they had access to helicopters.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power tweeted that "32 witnesses saw or heard sound of helicopters as bombs struck; 29 smelled chlorine. Only Syrian regime uses helos."

The investigators said 26 people heard the distinctive "whistling" sound of the falling barrel bombs containing toxic chemicals and 16 visited the impact sites and saw the bombs or their remnants. They said 29 people smelled "the distinctive odor of the gas cloud" released after the bombs hit the ground, mainly describing it "as intense, chlorine-like, similar to cleaning material used to clean toilets, but much stronger."

The 117-page report offers the most detailed findings to date regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but does not say which side used them.

The report focuses on three Syrian villages, two in Idlib and one in Hama, where it says there is a "high degree of certainty" chlorine gas was used against the Syrian people.

The report includes a description of 142 videos and 189 pieces of material obtained by the investigators as well as photos of impact sites and the inner chlorine cylinder from a barrel bomb.

The findings are consistent with two previous reports by the mission.

The mission was established by the OPCW on April 29 to establish the facts surrounding allegations of the use of chlorine "for hostile purposes" in Syria. Chlorine gas is readily available and is used in industry around the world, but can also be used as a weapon.

After a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the progress in destroying Syria's chemical weapons program, Power said the new report added credence to allegations that the Syrian government used chlorine gas as a weapon in its four-year-old civil war after pledging to give up its toxic arsenal.

Eliminating chemical weapons

The effort to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program was launched after a sarin gas attack on Aug. 21, 2013 killed hundreds of civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. The U.S. says more than 1,400 people died in the attack.

President Bashar al-Assad's government and rebel forces blamed each other for the Ghouta strike and other chemical weapons attacks.

After the attack near Damascus, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution backed by the U.S. and Russia on Sept. 27, 2013, ordering Syria's chemical weapons stockpile to be destroyed. U.N. investigators could not find enough evidence to assess blame for the sarin attack. Syria's declared chemical weapons stockpiles have since been destroyed under international supervision, but questions remain about whether it may still be hiding deadly chemical agents.

Damascus joined the OPCW, without admitting responsibility for Ghouta, after the United States threatened military intervention. 

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad told an OPCW meeting on Dec. 1 that his government has never used chemical weapons or chlorine gas during the country's four-year civil war, which has claimed over 200,000 lives and displaced one third of the country's population. He said terror groups "have used chlorine gas in several of the regions of Syria and Iraq."

Chlorine gas is not listed as a chemical weapon. But eight council members, including the United States, said in a Dec. 30 letter accompanying the OPCW report that the 2013 resolution also states that any use of chemical weapons threatens international peace and security and must be condemned.

After briefing the 15-nation Security Council, U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane told reporters the OPCW mission was still trying to clarify gaps in Syrian chemical weapons declaration and hoped to destroy all remaining production facilities by June.

Al Jazeera with the Associated Press

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