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Low-key Swede in spotlight of Syria chemical attack inquiry

Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, like Hans Blix a decade ago in Iraq, is leading a high-profile U.N. investigation of reports of illicit weapons. Unlike Blix, he dislikes the limelight.

September 01, 2013|By Alexandra Sandels
  • Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, second from right, is leading a United Nations inspection team looking into allegations of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, second from right, is leading a United… (Youssef Badawi / European…)

STOCKHOLM — At the center of the debate about whether the Syrian government has used chemical weapons on its people stands an unlikely figure: Dr. Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish neurobiologist little known outside the world of disarmament experts.

Sellstrom, 64, has been propelled from his tranquil academic life into a high-profile and politically delicate role as leader of the United Nations team that has been investigating what could be the world's worst chemical attack in decades.

The U.N. contingent left Syria on Saturday after collecting soil, tissue and other samples from various sites of the Aug. 21 attack in which the Syrian government has been accused of firing rockets laden with toxic chemicals. The inspectors also took testimony from witnesses, survivors and others in the areas where the projectiles were said to have landed in the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Syrian authorities and antigovernment rebels have exchanged accusations over the strike, which the U.S. intelligence report released Friday said left more than 1,400 people dead, including 426 children.

The chemical inspectors arrived Saturday in The Hague, headquarters of a chemical weapons oversight organization. The U.N. said it could take up to three weeks to assess the evidence gathered in Syria, but officials said they would expedite the process.

The samples gathered by Sellstrom's team are now headed to laboratories in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe for analysis.

The U.N. said, Sellstrom is scheduled to brief U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon by telephone on Sunday about the team's findings.

As a weapons expert, Sellstrom follows in the path of another Swede, Hans Blix, a former diplomat who a decade ago led a U.N. team in Iraq searching for Saddam Hussein's ultimately nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. In this case, as then, the U.S. appears ready to move forward regardless of the U.N.'s investigation.

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared that Washington had determined with "high confidence" that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad was behind the Aug. 21 attack. Syria labeled Kerry's statement "fabrications and lies."

In his speech, Kerry declared that the U.N. "can't tell us anything ... that we don't already know."

Others contend that the on-site information constitutes evidence far superior to anything that U.S. intelligence could gather from telephone intercepts, satellite imagery and other remote intelligence techniques.

In a telephone interview, Blix argued that the U.N. report was "important" to provide an alternative to the U.S. findings.

The mandate of Sellstrom's team is to determine whether chemical agents have been used in Syria, not to determine who carried out any attack. Still, experts say, the conclusions could provide significant clues about who was behind the suspected toxic release.

Even if U.S. authorities maintain that there is irrefutable evidence implicating the Syrian military, "the rest of the world must be able to trust this," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told state TV on Friday.

Like Blix, Sellstrom was scarcely known to the outside world when, in March, he agreed to head the U.N.'s Syria inquiry. At the time the mission was designed to study allegations of chemical weapons use from months earlier. Unlike Blix, who seemed to relish the media limelight, Sellstrom has remained an opaque figure, granting few interviews.

"I would say that Ake is a celebrity in the industry, but he is little known among the general public," said Dzenan Sahovic, who has been working alongside Sellstrom since 2006 at the European CBRNE Center, a small research organization based at Umea University in northern Sweden.

With his role in Syria, Sellstrom has become somewhat of a celebrity in Sweden, though he has revealed little about his private life. He is said to be a grandfather and avid silversmith and outdoorsman, fond of nature hikes in scenic northern climes known for dark, bone-chilling winters and bright summer evenings. Local news media boast of the "Umea native" and "Swedish Ake" overseeing the challenging U.N. assignment.

More to the point, Sellstrom is widely recognized as a global authority on chemical weapons and has done previous work for the U.N. He has taught at several U.S. universities and headed a Swedish research group, and "is an accomplished scientist with a solid background in disarmament and international security," said Martin Nesirky, a U.N. spokesman.

Sellstrom's 1975 doctoral thesis at Sweden's Gothenburg University carries the daunting title "Gamma-aminobutyric acid transport in brain."

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