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U.N. chemical weapons inspectors to leave Syria by Saturday

August 29, 2013|By Shashank Bengali
  • A United Nations chemical weapons expert collects samples in the eastern Ghouta region outside the Syrian capital, Damascus.
A United Nations chemical weapons expert collects samples in the eastern… (Ammar Al-Arbini / AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON – A team of United Nations chemical weapons experts will leave Syria by Saturday with initial results from their investigation of the alleged use of poison-filled weapons banned under international treaty, officials said Thursday.

The preliminary findings are expected to indicate whether sarin nerve gas or other toxic agents were dispersed in several recent attacks, as well as whether rockets, artillery shells, bombs or other delivery systems were used, experts said.

The results may galvanize debate in Washington and European capitals, which are considering authorizing missile strikes to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government for an attack Aug. 21 that rebels say killed hundreds of people in the Damascus suburbs.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who cut short a trip to Austria to return to New York, urged world powers not to take military action until the 20-member U.N. team had produced a full report. That could take weeks, and the Obama administration is reportedly considering launching a missile attack within days.

The initial report is likely to include results of soil, air and other samples, analyzed in a mobile laboratory, as well as testimony from witnesses and survivors of the attacks, said Ralf Trapp, a former inspector for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Trapp said the U.N. team would leave Damascus with “a pretty good idea of what they found and what the [chemical] agent was, if it was an agent.”

The team’s mandate is to determine only if chemical weapons were used, not who used them. Their initial findings could incorporate tests of rocket casings or shell fragments, which might show their origin. But Russia, Syria’s chief supporter at the U.N. Security Council, is likely to argue that such results are inconclusive.

“They have to find as much evidence as possible, including ammunition or remnants of munitions. That’s part of their job,” Trapp said. “There’s a concern their findings will be politicized. But the hope is you can keep the report of the team as factual as possible.”

The Obama administration says evidence shows Assad’s government was responsible for the Aug. 21 attack. The British government released an intelligence assessment Thursday saying that “there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility.”


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Twitter: @SBengali

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