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U.N. team collects samples at site of alleged Syrian chemical attacks

August 26, 2013|By Raja Abdulrahim
  • An image from amateur video purports to show a U.N. inspector measuring and photographing a canister in the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya in Syria.
An image from amateur video purports to show a U.N. inspector measuring… (Associated Press )

CAIRO – In the Syrian home where six family members died in their sleep, United Nations inspectors Monday collected samples from the dirt, the mattress and the pillows.

The family, a mother, father and four children – the youngest 7 years old – were among dozens of victims in the Muadhamiya district, southwest of Damascus, activists and residents said.

After receiving approval from the Syrian government, the international inspectors made their first visit to the site of Wednesday's alleged chemical attack Wednesday, which killed hundreds of people, many of them women and children. The team's mission was to collect witness statements and samples in order to determine whether chemical weapons were used. Its mandate does not include determining who launched the attack.

It was not clear why the team first visited Muadhamiya, where about 80 residents were reported killed. The hardest-hit area was apparently the so-called eastern Ghouta region, to the northeast of Damascus.

Inspectors spent about four hours in Muadhamiya interviewing victims and doctors who treated them. They took samples from those still exhibiting symptoms and visited the sites of two of the rocket attacks, activists said in phone interviews.

The inspectors refused to take hair and blood samples the doctors had collected from those killed, instead only taking samples from survivors that could be well documented, said Dr. Abu Samir, a pediatrician who treated victims shortly after the attack.

Many residents are still suffering from seizures, blackouts and shortness of breath, the physician said.

The inspectors asked about specific symptoms based on the distance of victims from where rockets landed. The victims were told that this could help in determining what chemical was used, he said.

In addition to asking  standard questions about when the attack took place, how survivors felt afterward and what symptoms they still had, some inspectors asked who they believed was behind the attack, said Sham, a member of the town’s legal office, which documents casualties and injuries.

“Who do you expect hit us? They said, ‘[President] Bashar Assad hit us,’” said Sham, who didn't want his last name published because of security concerns.

Despite the question, he said, the team was not willing to discuss the issue of responsibility with the activists.

“We asked them what the goal is with this trip; they said simply to take samples,” he said. “They didn’t allow us to talk to them about this subject.”

The U.N. team visited the field hospital and two other sites, although they had initially planned to visit seven, said activist Adnan Sheikh. The team was delayed after members were shot at en route from Damascus.  No one was injured, the U.N. said.

Activists said the government had agreed not to shell the town - which residents say has been under regular attack for months - during the inspectors' visit. About 5 p.m., though, a loud boom was heard and a shell landed on the outskirts of the town, Sheikh said.

Minutes after the inspectors left, the town was shelled intensely for more than an hour, Sheikh and other activists said.

“We wish they would have gone to the cemetery and seen the graves and they could have taken a body with them for testing,” Sheikh said. “We would have given them bodies if there could be a benefit from it.”

He said the residents’ eagerness to help with the investigation was hampered by the understanding that the team’s goal was not to assign blame for the attack.

“We don’t care about this visit except to establish the lies of this criminal regime and the lies of the international community,” he said, adding that the town has seen previous international observers with no benefits.

“In the end it’s just ink on paper,” he said. “And after they leave the shells resume.”

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raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

Twitter: @rajaabdulrahim

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