Tue, Aug 06, 2013 - Page 9 News List

UN inspectors gear up for a sarin-hunting expedition in Syria

By Ian Sample  /  The Guardian, LONDON

UN inspectors are to go to Syria as soon as possible to investigate alleged attacks employing chemicals weapons at three sites in the country.

The investigation was given the green light after a visit to Damascus late last month by Ake Sellstrom, head of the chemical weapons team, and UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane.

“The team will depart for Syria as soon as practical and is preparing to depart within days,” Martin Nesirky, a UN spokesman, said on Thursday last week.

The breakthrough ends months of negotiations that began when the regime invited the UN to investigate an attack at Khan al-Assal, a village near Aleppo on March 19. The government and rebel forces blame each other for using chemical weapons in the attack.

Plans to send inspectors into Syria were put on hold soon after the initial invitation, when the UN’s request to visit other sites of alleged attacks was refused by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The UN Security Council has reports of 13 alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria since civil war broke out in March 2011. The inspectors will visit Khan al-Assal, but the UN has not disclosed the other two sites.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has previously called for an investigation in Homs, following reports of an attack in December last year.

The investigation will look only at whether chemical weapons have been used, not who used them. The US, Britain and France have already said that the nerve agent sarin has been used in the war; samples smuggled from Syria, with security services’ help, have been analyzed.

In June, US President Barack Obama’s administration moved to arm Syrian rebels, citing conclusive evidence that the regime had used sarin against the insurgents.

Under Sellstrom, a chemical weapons expert from Sweden, the UN has drawn together a team of interpreters and medics that will support inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The team faces a big challenge given the number of sites it is restricted to, the small amounts of nerve agent probably used and the time that has passed since some of the attacks.

“Some people say that it’s already too late, and I can definitely understand that,” one inspector said on condition of anonymity. “People are afraid of a result that’s neither positive or negative, but an inconclusive maybe.”

Ralf Trapp, a chemical weapons expert and former OPCW scientist, said an uncertain result was a fair concern.

“The problem with coming back and saying we didn’t find anything is that the allegations don’t go away. If you can prove someone used it the questions you ask change,” he said.

“Sarin is not something you pick up at the pharmacy. So you move on to who had access, and who can make it. Sarin is not hard to make, but it is extremely hard to make safely,” he said.

Despite the difficulties, the investigation is worthwhile, Trapp said. The UN team is independent, he said, and it would base its conclusions on a wealth of evidence that could be used in court.

“That’s not the case for a lot of what comes from the intelligence agencies,” he said.

The first task for the inspectors is to visit each site. Charles Duelfer, the former US chief weapons inspector, said officials could deter inspectors by emphasizing the dangers in an area.

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