UN probing more Syria chemical attacks, inspections to start

BEIRUT Fri Sep 27, 2013 7:39pm IST

Handprints of a civilian are pictured on a U.N. vehicle carrying a team of U.N. chemical weapons experts visiting one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 28, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah/Files

Handprints of a civilian are pictured on a U.N. vehicle carrying a team of U.N. chemical weapons experts visiting one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 28, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Mohamed Abdullah/Files

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.N. chemical weapons inspectors in Syria are investigating seven cases of alleged chemical or biological weapons use, including three incidents around Damascus after the August 21 attack which almost triggered U.S. air strikes.

In a statement from Damascus on Friday, the United Nations said inspectors probing the attacks had returned to Syria on Wednesday and expected to finalise their work on Monday on a report to be issued by late October. The United States and its allies say an initial U.N. report that said sarin gas was used on August 21 showed government forces were responsible.

Syria has denied that and accuses rebels of releasing gas. The United Nations itself has not assigned blame. The three most recent incidents it is looking into were in Bahhariyeh and Jobar, both east of central Damascus, on August 22 and 24, and Ashrafiat Sahnaya to the southwest of the capital on August 25.

The U.N. gave no further details of the latest incidents.

The outskirts of Damascus have seen some of the heaviest fighting in recent months. At least 20 people were killed and dozens wounded by a car bomb on Friday in the town of Rankus, 30 km (20 miles) to the north, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

From Tuesday, experts from international watchdog the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will begin inspecting Syria's stockpile of toxic munitions, under the terms of a deal struck this month to avert U.S. military action.

A draft agreement on the stockpile inspections, obtained by Reuters and due to be voted on by OPCW member states in The Hague late on Friday, calls on members of to make cash donations to fund Syria's fast-tracked destruction operation.

The 41-member executive council of the OPCW is due to discuss and vote on the proposal at 10 p.m. (2000 GMT). It needs a simple majority to be passed, but decisions at the body are normally agreed upon by consensus.

U.S. President Barack Obama had prepared to attack President Bashar al-Assad's forces in response to the August 21 gassing. Faced with resistance in Congress, he accepted a proposal from Assad's Russian ally to refrain from strikes in return for Syria giving up its chemical arsenal by the middle of next year.

KILLINGS

Next month's U.N. report on the previous instances of gas being used will give more details of the August 21 incident. Other incidents include one in March in the northern town of Khan al-Assal, where authorities say rebels killed 25 people, including 16 soldiers. Rebels said government forces were behind it.

The two other cases from earlier this year both date back to April - one in the Aleppo district of Sheikh Maqsoud and another in the town of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib.

The OPCW draft said funding is needed to hire inspectors and technical experts to destroy what Western intelligence agencies believe is about 1,000 tonnes of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agents, built up over decades and spread over dozens of locations. An OPCW official said an advance team would head for Syria on Monday.

Established to enforce the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, the OPCW has an annual budget of under $100 million and less than 500 staff. It does not have the manpower to carry out the task without significantly increasing resources.

Experts have said it will be risky and expensive to destroy the chemicals in Syria, where the civil war has killed more than 100,000 and displaced millions more.

Syria has just nine months to do what some countries, including Russia and the United States, have taken more than a decade to do.

Syria is instructed to provide inspectors with security and "immediate and unfettered" access to all sites. A failure to do so will trigger a meeting by the OPCW's core members within 24 hours, the draft says.

A U.N. Security Council Resolution, also to be voted on Friday, does not refer to the use of force as a means to enforce the destruction plan, a point which Washington had pressed for.

The OPCW inspectors will have 30 days to visit all chemical weapons facilities declared by Syria to the organisation last week, it states.

It is still unclear where and how the chemicals stockpile, the details of which have not been made public by the OPCW, will be destroyed.

Syria will appoint a person within the Damascus administration to handle questions on chemical weapons and by November 1 must have completely destroyed all chemical weapon production and mixing and filling facilities, the draft states. (Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch at The Hague; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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