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U.N. distances itself from claim that Syrian rebels used nerve gas

Published: Updated:

U.N. war crimes investigators have reached no conclusions on whether any side in the Syrian war has used chemical weapons, the inquiry commission said on Monday, playing down a suggestion from one of the team that rebel forces had done so.

Investigator Carla Del Ponte caught U.N. officials by surprise on Sunday when she said the commission had gathered testimony from casualties and medical staff indicating that rebel forces had used the banned nerve agent sarin.

“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,” it said in a statement.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the rebels accuse each another of carrying out three chemical weapon attacks, one near Aleppo and another near Damascus, both in March, and another in Homs in December.

Del Ponte, a former Swiss attorney general who also served as prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, gave no details as to when or where sarin may have been used. She was speaking in an interview with Swiss-Italian television.

In comments posted in English on Monday, she repeated the assertion, saying that witness testimony made it appear that some chemical weapons had been used.

“What appears to our investigation is that it was used by the opponents, by the rebels,” she said. “We have no indication at all that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.”

The Geneva-based inquiry into war crimes and other human rights violations led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro is separate from an investigation of the alleged use of chemical weapons instigated by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Ban’s office is still trying to negotiate entry into Syria to investigate and collect samples.

Sarin is a powerful neurotoxin developed by Nazi scientists in the 1930s.

Originally developed as a pesticide, sarin was used to deadly effect in the 1988 raid on the Kurdish village of Halabja in northern Iraq. A Japanese cult also used sarin in two attacks in the 1990s.

The gas works by being inhaled or absorbed through the skin and kills by crippling the nervous system.

Symptoms include nausea and violent headaches, blurred or tunnel vision, drooling, muscular convulsions, respiratory arrest, loss of consciousness and then death, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

In high doses, sarin paralyses the muscles around the lungs and prevents chemicals from “switching off” the body’s secretions, so victims suffocate or drown as their lungs fill with mucus and saliva.

Even a tiny dose of sarin -- which, like other nerve gases such as soman, tabun and VX, is odourless, colourless and tasteless -- can be deadly if it enters the respiratory system, or if a drop comes into contact with the skin.

But speculations have been rife over which side of the conflict have been allegedly using chemical weapons.

Last week, Washington acknowledged that chemical weapons were used in Syria, confirming an earlier statement by an Israeli army official that Syrian regime forces had “used lethal chemical weapons” against the opposition.

A defected Syrian regime officer told Al Arabiya last week he was ordered by the regime to use chemical agents against the rebels, but replaced the deadly sarin with liquid bleach before defecting.

“The regime used sarin gas on three occasions, and I am increasingly afraid that they will use agents more powerful than sarin. They have VX gas and mustard gas, also known as iprit,” Zaker al-Saket said.

Saket explained that President Bashar Assad’s army has “three types of chemical weapons: harassing chemical agents, incapacitating agents, and lethal agents.” While regime forces only used harassing agents such as tear gas at the start of the uprising, he said, they gravitated toward more deadly chemical weapons as the conflict progressed.

“The regime used incapacitating agents at first, but when the world remained silent about this, and the regime thought that the international community did not care, it used lethal [chemical] weapons in more than 13 locations. The last incident was in Utaybah,” he said.

In December 2012, a video uploaded on the web showing the wreckage after a shelling that took place in Douma, an area in the Damascus suburbs, purported to show chemical weapons existence.

The video showed a fiery wreckage caused by a bomb dropped from a Syrian fighter jet. The fire was uncontainable by either water or dirt and was releasing toxic substance as it began to bubble underneath the ground.