UN chemical weapons team departing soon for Syria

AP News
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Posted: Aug 14, 2013 8:06 PM

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. chemical weapons experts will depart imminently for Syria after the government accepted arrangements for the investigation, the United Nations announced Wednesday.

The team is expected to visit three sites where chemical weapons attacks allegedly occurred, including Khan al Assal, a village outside the embattled city of Aleppo, which was captured by the rebels last month. The government and rebels blame each other for the purported March 19 attack in Khan al Assal, which killed at least 30 people. The locations of the other two incidents are being kept secret for safety reasons.

U.N. diplomats and chemical weapons experts have raised doubts about whether the U.N. team will find anything since the alleged incidents took place months ago.

U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said "the departure of the team is now imminent" but provided no specific date.

Under the agreement with Syria, the team will remain in the country for "up to 14 days, extendable upon mutual consent" to "conduct activities, "including on-site visits," del Buey said.

The U.N. approved the investigation on July 31 after reaching an "understanding" with Syria that it would include three sites where chemical weapons were allegedly used.

The team, led by Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, completed preparations for the visit over the weekend in The Hague but its departure was delayed because of differences over details of the investigation.

U.N. Mideast envoy Robert Serry told the Security Council last month that the U.N. has received 13 reports of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria.

Del Buey said the secretary-general believes an effective investigation of allegations can serve as "an important deterrent" against the use of chemical weapons.

"Our goal remains a fully independent and impartial inquiry," del Buey said.

He said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is pleased that agreement has been reached "to ensure the proper, safe and efficient conduct of the mission," del Buey said.

Del Buey said "the overwhelming support of the international community for this investigation makes clear that the use of chemical weapons by any side under any circumstances would constitute an outrageous crime."

The investigation team includes about 10 experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is based in The Hague, and the World Health Organization, based in Geneva.

Its mandate is to report on whether chemical weapons were used, and if so which ones, but not to determine the responsibility for an attack. This has led some commentators to question the value of the investigation.

President Bashar Assad's government initially asked the U.N. to investigate the Khan al Assal incident. Britain, France and the U.S. followed with allegations of chemical weapons use in Homs, Damascus and elsewhere.

The July 31 announcement of an investigation ended more than four months of behind-the-scenes talks, with Syria trying to limit the probe to Khan al-Assal and the U.S., Britain and France pressing for a broader investigation.

Del Buey said Ban expressed appreciation to the Syrian government for its cooperation and to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for its support of the mission.