ISTANBUL — U.N. inspectors, who Monday confirmed the use of chemical weapons against a rebel-held area in the Damascus suburbs, were in Syria by coincidence, intending to investigate other gas attacks where the national government claims the rebels are responsible.
Led by Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom, the inspection team said in the report that it has every intention of traveling at a later point to Khan al Asal, which is near Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, and two other locations, where one side or both are alleged to have used the long-proscribed chemical weapons.
In fact there are credible allegations that chemical weapons were used at more than a dozen locations in Syria since December 2012, according to a U.N. human rights watchdog body.
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry, which is investigating human rights abuses and war crimes in Syria, is now looking into 14 possible attacks involving chemical weapons, its head, Paolo Sergio Pinheiro of Brazil, told reporters Monday in Geneva. “These are not just bald allegations” but “credible claims” by human rights groups, the commission’s own research, videos or interviews with refugees, an aide who was not authorized to speak to the press and talked on condition of anonymity, told McClatchy.
Unlike the chemical weapons inspection team, the human rights watchdog body has yet to receive permission to enter Syria.
No doubt the most contentious case on the list is Khan al Asal, where a chemical weapon was detonated on March 19 that left 14 dead, according to the resistance, or 26, according to the Syrian government and Russia, its principal arms supplier.
After conducting what it said was an independent investigation under strict international protocols, Russia delivered a 100-page report to the U.N. Security Council in July.
The gas was delivered by a shell that “was not regular Syrian army ammunition, but was an artisan-type, similar to unguided rocket projectiles produced in the north of Syria” by a gang the Russian report called “Bashir an Nasr.” The Russian report also asserted that according to gas and oil samples obtained at the site, the shell contained sarin gas “not synthesized in an industrial environment.”
The Syrian resistance tells a very different story.
The incident occurred on the morning of March 19 near a military medical installation in government-held territory, according to Abd al Tawwa Shahrour, who at the time of the attack was the head of forensic medicine in the Aleppo public health service.
At a news conference organized in Istanbul last week by the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella group, he told reporters that witnesses spoke of a government warplane flying overhead at the time and of hearing an explosion, apparently after a rocket was fired from the plane.
He and other forensic experts signed a letter that said 14 corpses were brought to the university hospital that day – seven women, six men and one child – all showing signs of asphyxiation due to breathing a poisonous substance.
The doctors there performed autopsies and sent the report to the criminal security branch of the police. Shahrour said several soldiers also came to hospital, but they were examined and quickly released.
Shahrour, who defected to the resistance in June, gave reporters copies of handwritten lists of those injured and dead, a letter by the three top forensic officers in Aleppo, and statements by witnesses, whose names were deleted for their own protection. The material, in Arabic, was translated by McClatchy.
Four of the five anonymous witnesses said they saw a warplane circling overhead before the explosion, and that after the weapon was detonated, people collapsed on the street.
“I saw a warplane above the city and after a few moments I heard the sound of an explosion,” one witness was quoted as saying. “Then I heard the sound of shouting, so I went to see what was happening, and saw several people lying on the ground with foam coming out of their mouths.”
Russia has not published its report, nor has it provided a copy to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, according to Karen Abuzayd, a member of the commission. “They haven’t given it to us. We’ve asked the Russians,” she said, adding that France, Britain and the United States also had failed to provide any classified reports on the incident.
“All these governments say they have all this information. We say, ‘Share it,’” she told McClatchy.