An investigation by the chemical weapons watchdog has found that chlorine is likely to have been used in an attack on a Syrian town in February. In what is likely to be seen as a dry run for a more controversial report later this month, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found that the February attack on the neighbourhood of Saraqeb was caused by the dropping of two cylinders that had contained chlorine on to a field in the town, NPR reports.
Two cylinders that were dropped on the rebel-held Syrian city of Saraqeb in February — sending nearly a dozen people to seek medical help for nausea and other symptoms — had contained chlorine, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. After a visit to the site, the OPCW says, its fact-finding mission has confirmed “that chlorine was likely used as a chemical weapon” on Feb. 4 in Saraqeb, a small city that’s about 12 miles southeast of Idlib. It also used evidence that was gathered by several nongovernmental organizations.
The apparent attack took place shortly after 9 p.m., when witnesses reported a helicopter flying over the the Al Talil neighborhood. Two “barrel” cylinders were dropped onto an open field. Soon afterward, eight men who had been taking shelter in a nearby basement grew ill. A pungent odor filled the structure, they said, and they “immediately developed shortness of breath, nausea, and a burning sensation in the eyes,” according to the OPCW report.
“Witnesses reported being notified of the possible use of toxic gases and were advised to go to higher ground. They headed to the rooftop of an adjacent building,” the report states. “On the way upstairs, a few of them lost consciousness and others struggled to reach the roof. They reported helping each other climb the stairs and using cloths to cover their mouth and nose. They also reported calling for rescue via a hand-held radio.”
Rescue personnel came to the area and took 11 men to a medical facility (details about that facility were not shared, out of security concerns). They received oxygen and other treatment; within hours, they had all recovered enough to be discharged. To reconstruct what happened, OPCW inspectors took samples from the ground around the impact spots where the two cylinders hit. They also examined the cylinders themselves, which were roughly 55 inches long and 14 inches wide.
“At the top part of both cylinders stamped markings were still visible. Among the various stamps was the alphanumeric CL2” — denoting chlorine gas — the report states.
The OPCW is to report soon on whether chemical weapons were used on a larger-scale attack in Douma, eastern Ghouta, in May, The Guardian says. Aspects of the evidence gathered at Saraqeb and Douma are very similar, weapons experts said. The OPCW does not have the power to attribute responsibility for attacks, and the UN body that did have the power to attribute blame has been closed after Russia used its veto to block the renewal of its mandate. In a brief statement Ahmet Üzümcü, the head of OPCW, said:
“I strongly condemn the use of toxic chemicals as weapons by anyone, for any reason, and in any circumstances. Such acts contradict the unequivocal prohibition against chemical weapons.”
The report comes days after OPCW inspectors wrapped up their trip to Douma, where a suspected chemical weapons attack killed more than 40 people in April. U.S. officials have accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons, saying that chlorine and another nerve gas may have been used in the attack on Douma. In retaliation for that incident, the U.S. and its allies hit Syria with airstrikes. The OPCW report did not assign blame for the Saraqeb incident, other than noting that at the time, “the city was not under government control.”
The Syrian government produced a three-page denial of responsibility, and failed to answer a further set of OPCW questions sent on 14 March.
Russia will not allow the mandate to be renewed unless the UN security council – on which Russia has a veto – is empowered to reject or endorse the body’s findings. Moscow has also become increasingly critical of the OPCW’s neutrality and working methods, especially after its experts found that a military-grade nerve agent had been deployed in the Salisbury attack on Russian former double-agent Sergei Skripal. Last month, Russia held a press conference close to the OPCW headquarters in The Hague, at which it produced witnesses that claimed no chemical weapons attack had occurred, and that any choking had been due to dust inhalation. Russia said the whole attack was faked on video footage by UK intelligence-funded Syrians.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has been working privately to bridge the differences between Russia and the west on how to reform the OPCW so that it has powers to attribute responsibility. The French government is due to hold a ministerial-level conference in Paris on Friday to build an alliance of countries determined to reconstruct an accountability mechanism for chemical weapons use, if necessary outside the confines of the UN.