Diplomats: Traces of chemical weapons agents found in Syria

AP News
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Posted: May 13, 2015 3:31 PM

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Chemical weapons experts have found traces of deadly nerve agents used to make chemical weapons at a site in Syria where the agents were not supposed to be, two diplomats said.

The discovery of traces of sarin and VX renewed fears that Syria did not disclose all aspects of its chemical weapons program when it joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 and agreed to destroy its chemical arsenal. That decision averted a U.S. military strike in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds near Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013.

A team of experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has repeatedly visited Syria to discuss what they describe as anomalies in the declaration by Damascus of its chemical arsenal. Several members of the U.N. Security Council fear Syria didn't declare everything it has.

A U.N. diplomat said Wednesday that experts told the OPCW's executive council at a meeting last week that they found the traces at a site the Syrians had declared, but they said Damascus hadn't declared that sarin and VX were produced there. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because the OPCW meeting was closed.

Latvia's representative to the OPCW, Maris Klisans, speaking on behalf of the European Union at the executive council meeting, said in a speech that serious questions remain over the accuracy of Syria's declaration, which was supposed to list all its chemical weapons and production and storage facilities.

"The list of discrepancies remains long," Klisans said. "These are not trivial bookkeeping issues."

He listed a string of examples and ended by saying, "last but not least, the recent finding of the DAT (Declaration Assessment Team), showing traces of precursors of VX and sarin were found on a site where they were not supposed to be."

The U.N. diplomat said the assessment team is expected to follow up on the finding.

Syrian activists and doctors say another chemical agent, chlorine, has been used repeatedly in Syria in recent months, killing and injuring civilians. The U.S. and other countries have blamed the Syrian government for repeatedly dropping chlorine from helicopters during the four-year civil war, as no other party to the conflict has helicopters. Forces loyal to Assad have blamed rebels for such attacks.

Last week, the current Security Council president, Lithuanian Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite, said a large majority of its 15 members support a new U.S. effort to create a way to attribute blame for the chlorine attacks. Few details of that effort have emerged publicly, and top Syria ally Russia has warned that the effort must be objective.

Russia has repeatedly said more evidence is needed before blame can be assigned in the alleged attacks, which have increased since the council last month adopted a resolution condemning chlorine attacks in Syria and threatening action for further violations.

Neither the U.N. nor the OPCW has a mandate to assign blame for such attacks in Syria, making it impossible for the council to take further action, diplomats say.

Another U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because consultations have been private, said Wednesday the U.S. proposal under discussion would create a panel of experts to examine all information and make a judgment on responsibility for the attacks.

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Associated Press writer Michael Corder contributed to this report from The Hague, Netherlands.