Syria denies its air force is behind 2017 chemical attacks

Apr 9, 2020

Syria has denounced as misleading the first report from the global chemical weapons watchdog blaming its air force for a series of attacks using sarin and chlorine on a rebel-held town in 2017

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria denounced Thursday as misleading the first report from the global chemical weapons watchdog blaming its air force for a series of attacks using sarin and chlorine on a rebel-held town in 2017.

The investigative team of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a 82-page report issued Wednesday that the Syrian air force dropped bombs containing either chlorine or sarin on a hospital and open farmland in the central town of Latamneh, injuring over 70 people and killing at least three, a surgeon and two other people. Livestock was also killed.

The attacks came amid intense fighting over the rebel-controlled town and parts of northern Hama, the central province were Latamneh is located. It was followed by a government attack on Khan Sheikoun, a town further north, with suspected chemical agents that killed nearly 100 people. The Khan Sheikoun attack is not part of the new report but it prompted U.S. missile strikes in April 2017 that targeted Syrian air bases from where the attacks are believed to have been launched.

“Syria condemns in the strongest terms what was stated in the report," an unnamed official with the Foreign Ministry said, according to a statement on state media. “At the same time, it categorically denies that it used toxic gases in the town of Latamneh or in any other Syrian city or village.”

The official charged the report relied on “fabricated allegations" from opposition areas, including by militant groups, dominated by al-Qaida-linked fighters and a volunteer group known as White Helmets, which Damascus labels as “terrorists.”

The investigative team concluded that “there are reasonable grounds” to believe the perpetrators of the use of sarin as a chemical weapon in Latamneh in 2017, on March 24 and March 30, and that the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon on March 25, 2017, was part of the Syrian Arab Air Force, coordinator Santiago Oñate-Laborde said.

The investigation included interviews with witnesses, analysis of samples taken from the sites of the attacks, as well as review of symptoms reported by those affected and medical staff, along with examination of imagery, including satellite images.

Syrian authorities repeatedly refused to cooperate with the investigation, the report said.

The Syrian government consistently rejects allegations it used chemical weapons during the country’s grinding civil war. The new report is likely to fan new calls for accountability for the government of its president, Bashar Assad.

The Syrian official also said such “false accusations will not deter Syria from continuing its war on terrorism.” Damascus considers all opposition groups terrorists and has kept up military operations against rebel-held areas, lately squeezing nearly 4 million civilians and tens of thousands of fighters in a shrinking enclave in northwestern Syria. A cease-fire went into effect there in March.

The OPCW team was established after Russia blocked the extension of a joint UN-OPCW investigation set up in 2015 that accused Syria of using chlorine in at least two attacks, in 2014 and 2015 ,and of unleashing the nerve agent sarin in Khan Sheikhoun.

Syria joined the OPCW in 2013 after it was blamed for a deadly poison gas attack in a Damascus suburb. Assad’s government then declared that some 1,300 tons of chemical weapons and precursor chemicals were subsequently destroyed in an unprecedented international operation.

However, the organization still has unanswered questions on whether Syria has fully disposed of its stockpile.

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