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Sarin confirmed? France, Britain confirm use of chemical weapons in Syria

France said today it has confirmed that the nerve gas sarin was used by the Syrian regime. Britain later said it had found evidence of sarin as well.

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The Obama administration also referred to such samples when it said in an April letter to two U.S. senators that the U.S. intelligence community had determined, with "varying degrees of confidence," that the regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale, specifically the nerve gas sarin.

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However, the administration cautioned that intelligence assessments are not sufficient, citing the stakes involved.

Claims of chemical weapons attacks also pose a dilemma for journalists.

Some of the videos posted by activists have shown rows of people lying in what appear to be makeshift hospitals, breathing with the aid of oxygen masks, sometimes twitching as they struggle to breathe.

Such videos are often consistent with AP reporting of attacks in that area, but claims that chemical weapons were involved are impossible to verify. The regime continues to bar most independent reporting from areas of fighting.

For example, activists alleged that on May 24, troops fired two rockets with poisonous gas at the rebel-held town of Adra near the capital Damascus, killing three people and wounding more than 40.

Amateur video from a makeshift clinic in the nearby town of Douma where victims were being treated showed young men lying on the floor, some of them twitching as medics poured water on their bodies.

The AP did not report the incident at the time because of the difficulty of confirming the claims. A local reporter who visited the area several days later to interview a doctor and a rebel commander found the evidence was not clear-cut.

A doctor at the Douma clinic who identified himself only by his first name, Seif, for fear of regime retribution, said 60 victims arrived that day and six of them died.

"It was the scariest thing I saw, people came in with strange symptoms like blurred vision, dilated pupils, teary eyes," he told The Associated Press. "Some had running saliva or were foaming at the mouth."

Abu Khaled al-Ijweh, a commander of the Lions of Ghouta Brigade, a rebel unit, said he witnessed the attack. He said regime forces fired two suspicious projectiles and fighters started to throw up, with some struggling to walk and dropping to the ground. Al-Ijweh said he managed the symptoms by wearing a mask, drinking vinegar and a liter of water.

In some cases, there is no way to reconcile the opposing narratives.

On April 19, activists said the government bombed the northern town of Saraqeb with chemical agents that caused respiratory problems and other symptoms in people who were exposed to them. The state news agency claimed "terrorists" brought bags of an unknown white powder to Saraqeb and opened them. It said the terrorists — the regime's term for the rebels — then transported the injured to Turkish hospitals to "accuse the Syrian armed troops of using chemical weapons."

Zanders, the chemical weapons expert, counseled extreme caution.

He noted claims often don't match the symptoms. Other options, while also conjecture, should at least be considered, such as shells inadvertently hitting shops or homes where chemicals are stored, or the regime using tear gas to instill fear at a time of heightened awareness about the dangers of chemical weapons.

"It becomes a self-reinforcing echo chamber," he said.

Laub reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Sylvia Hui in London, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and a journalist in Syria contributed to this report.

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