UN team confirms sarin gas used against civilians in Syria


McClatchy Washington Bureau

A U.N. inspections team found “clear and convincing” evidence that sarin gas was used against civilians in an Aug. 21 attack outside of Damascus, according to a report submitted today to the United Nations Security Council.

The report, considered the most authoritative and neutral to date in the Syrian chemical weapons controversy, said that banned chemical weapons were used “on a relatively large scale” in the conflict that’s now well into a third year.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon submitted the findings along with a statement that called the Aug. 21 attack on the suburb of Ghouta a war crime and “the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988.”

There is no mention of culpability – that wasn’t part of the inspectors’ mandate – but it’s clear Ban was eager to put to rest theories that chemicals weren’t used and that dozens of videos of dead or dying Syrians were staged. The U.N. report says the timing of the attack, between 2 and 5 a.m., maximized casualties because low temperatures helped the gas seep into basements where families took shelter.

“The results are overwhelming and indisputable,” Ban said. “The facts speak for themselves.”

The team interviewed more than 50 survivors, medical personnel and first responders, according to the U.N. It assessed victims’ symptoms and collected hair, urine and blood samples. Four laboratories tested the samples. Eighty-five percent of the blood samples tested positive for sarin, according to the findings. In additional biomedical samples from 34 patients who had signs of poisoning, “almost all tested positive for exposure to sarin.”

The U.N. team also examined impact sites and munitions, and collected 30 soil and environmental samples, “far more than any previous such United Nations investigation,” according to the statement.

One disputed part of the attack wasn’t cleared up by the U.N. inspectors: the death toll. A U.S. intelligence assessment put the figure at more than 1,400, while Syrian opposition tallies range from several hundred to nearly 2,000.

“Due to the security situation and other limitations, the mission was unable to document the full extent of the use of chemical weapons on 21 August or to verify the total number of casualties,” Ban’s statement said.

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