UN investigator suggests it was Syria's rebels who used chemical weapons

Rebel forces denied the claims by Carla Del Ponte. The UN commission she leads emphasized today that the investigators had not yet reached conclusive findings.

Ugarit News via AP video/AP
In this image taken from video, Syrian rebels clash with government forces in Damascus, Syria, Friday.

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The woman leading the UN investigation into possible chemical weapon use in Syria said yesterday that witness and victim testimonies indicate that Syrian rebels likely used chemical weapons such as the nerve gas sarin.

The commission she leads, however, tempered her comments with a statement today announcing that it had not yet reached "conclusive findings." Rebel forces denied the claims. 

We do not have sarin gas and we do not aim to bring it under our control,” said Luai al-Mekdad, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, according to Deutsche Press Agentur.

“The Syrian regime has used the chemical weapons against civilians many times,” Maj. Gen. Adnan Sillo, a defector from the Syrian military who had headed a chemical warfare unit, told The New York Times. “And there is no doubt that the regime will use it more often, as this is its strategy in the war since the beginning of oppressing the uprising, to move gradually.”

Carla Del Ponte said on Swiss television yesterday that the UN investigators had "strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof," of rebel use of chemical weapons, BBC News reports.  

… Ms. Del Ponte, one of its commissioners, told Swiss-Italian TV: "Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals.

"According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated."

"I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got ... they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition," she said.

However, the statement today by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the UN investigating body, was far more cautious:

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict. As a result, the Commission is not in a position to further comment on the allegations at this time.

The Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, reminds all parties to the conflict that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited in all circumstances under customary international humanitarian law. 

In the statement, the commission noted that it will release all of its findings on June 3, as previously scheduled. 

US and British inquiries into the same issue turned up evidence suggesting that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons. Ms. Del Ponte said yesterday that the UN commission's findings don't eliminate the possibility that the regime used them as well, but that the commission does not have evidence suggesting it, according to BBC. 

Del Ponte is one of four investigators chosen by the UN Human Rights Council. The New York Times notes that it is unclear whether she was speaking only for herself or on behalf of the commission. 

The BBC reports that Del Ponte's comments will frustrate US Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to convince Russia to support additional action against Syria, if he intended to argue chemical weapons use by the Assad regime to bolster his case. Secretary Kerry will be in Moscow this week.

A UN team has been organized specifically to investigate the chemical weapons claims, but it has demanded "unconditional access with the right to inquire into all credible allegations."

Slightly less than half of Americans would not want to take action even if the use of chemical weapons is proven.

According to a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted April 30 to May 4, 48 percent of Americans polled said they would rather the US take no military steps at all when asked, "If the Syrian government is found to have used chemical weapons against its own citizens, what level, if any military steps should the US take?" Just 8 percent said the US should commit troops to the conflict, 20 percent said the US should launch missile strikes or commit air power, and 12 percent said the US should help arm the rebels. 

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