Claims of sarin use in Syria questioned

The Observer, AFP-JIJI

New questions emerged Saturday over the source of the soil and other samples from Syria which, it is claimed, have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, amid apparent inconsistencies between eyewitness accounts describing one of the attacks and textbook descriptions of the weapon.

Meanwhile, opposition forces quoted rebels in Daraya near Damascus as saying missiles that “carried warheads containing toxic gases” were fired at the town on Thursday and Friday.

When they exploded, “they created a large gas cloud,” a statement said. “The explosion led to 42 cases of choking accompanied by severe allergic reactions and severe vomiting.”

Syria on Saturday dismissed claims it may have used chemical weapons. “I want to stress one more time that Syria would never use it — not only because of its adherence to the international law and rules of leading war, but because of humanitarian and moral issues,” Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi said.

Al-Zohbi said that chemical weapons were in fact used by rebels and originated in Turkey.

As questions from arms control experts grow over evidence that regime forces have used chemical weapons on a limited scale on several occasions, one incident in particular has come under scrutiny. While the French, U.K. and U.S. governments have tried to avoid saying where the positive sarin samples came from, comments by officials have narrowed down the locations to Aleppo and Homs. Last week, the White House suggested that Syrian government forces may have used the lethal nerve gas in two attacks.

A letter from the British government to the U.N. demanding an investigation said that it had seen “limited but persuasive evidence” of chemical attacks, citing incidents on March 19 and 23 in Aleppo and Damascus, and an attack in Homs in December, suggesting strongly that samples were taken at these locations.

According the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “sarin is a nerve agent that is one of the most toxic of the known chemical warfare agents. It is a clear colorless liquid . . . generally odorless and tasteless.”

But eyewitness accounts of that attack, which were reported at the time by The Associated Press, described “white smoke” pouring from shells that smelled “like hydrochloric acid.”