Amsterdam — Banned chlorine munitions were probably dropped on a Syrian neighbourhood in February, an international body on chemical weapons said on Wednesday, after laboratory tests confirmed the presence of the toxic chemical.
In its latest report on the systematic use of banned munitions in Syria’s civil war, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did not say which party was behind the attack on Saraqib, which lies in rebel-held territory in Idlib.
But witnesses told OPCW investigators that the munitions were dropped in barrel bombs from a helicopter, a report released by the OPCW showed. Only Syrian government forces are known to have helicopters.
The report by the OPCW’s fact-finding mission for Syria "determined that chlorine was released from cylinders by mechanical impact in the Al Talil neighbourhood of Saraqib". About 11 people were treated after the attack on February 4 for mild and moderate symptoms of toxic chemical exposure, including breathing difficulties, vomiting and unconsciousness.
Samples taken from the soil, canisters and impact sites tested positive for other chemicals, bearing the "markers of the Syrian regime," said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a biological and chemical weapons expert working in Syria.
people treated for chemical exposure after Al Talil attack
The samples tested positive for precursors needed to make the nerve agent sarin, he said.
"These chemicals were detected in previous sarin attacks in Khan Sheikhoun, East Ghouta and no doubt Douma," Bretton-Gordon said.
The OPCW is also investigating a suspected chemical attack on April 7 in the Douma enclave near Damascus, which prompted missile strikes by the US, France and Britain. Those findings are expected late in May.
The conclusions on the Saraqib attack are based on the presence of two cylinders, which were determined as previously containing chlorine; witness testimony; and environmental samples confirming "the unusual presence of chlorine", the report said.
A joint OPCW-UN mechanism for Syria has previously concluded that the Syrian government has used both sarin nerve agent and chlorine, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians. Rebels were found to have used sulphur mustard once.
Reuters reported in January that tests found "markers" in samples taken at three attack sites between 2013 and 2017 from chemicals from the Syrian government stockpile.
The lab tests linked Ghouta and two other nerve agent attack sites, in the towns of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate on April 4 2017 and Khan al-Assal, Aleppo, in March 2013, to the stockpile handed over to the agency for destruction in 2014.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has denied using chemical weapons and instead has blamed rebels for staging attacks to falsely implicate his forces.