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Syrian samples to be analyzed for chemicals, UN says

UNITED NATIONS — The independent fact-finding mission charged with determining whether chemical weapons were used in Syria last month has completed its collection of samples and is poised to begin analyzing the material, a UN spokesman said Friday.

Farhan Haq, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, said experts at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had returned from Douma, the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack on April 7, and that they had carried samples to a lab where they would be split and dispatched to other labs.

The OPCW, based in The Hague, The Netherlands, issued a statement saying the analysis of the samples would take three to four weeks.

“Meanwhile, the (fact-finding mission) will continue its work to collect more information and material. At this time, it is not possible to give a time frame for when the Douma report will be issued to States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention,” the organization said in a statement.

The group will not seek to determine who launched the attack, but its work has taken center stage in Syria’s seven-year civil war.

The April 7 attack, which is reported to have left several dozen people dead, was the basis that President Donald Trump used to launch more than 100 missiles at suspected production facilities in Syria with assistance from Britain and France on April 13.

The nations’ leaders said they were certain that the chemical attack was carried out by Syria’s military, though Syrian and Russian authorities have denied Syria’s involvement.

An expert panel that could have analyzed who committed the attack, the Joint Investigative Mechanism, was disbanded last November when the Security Council was unable to renew its mandate. Russia used the veto to block a U.S.-sponsored resolution that would have extended the life of the panel, composed of UN and OPCW experts, for a year.

Haq fielded questions Friday on whether the attack had occurred as was widely broadcast because some observers have said the posted videos that show victims suffering the effects of the attack were staged. Some have stated that the Syria-based White Helmets humanitarian organization that had rescued victims of such attacks operates only in areas where the jihadist rebel group al-Nusra Front had a stronghold in Syria.

The UN special adviser to special envoy for Syria Jan Egeland said in a news briefing in Geneva on humanitarian concerns in Syria that the group seemed to be aligned with those who wanted to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“On the White Helmets, I am not an expert on them; what I know of the White Helmets is that these are very, very courageous local civil defense people who have suffered tremendously as they have rushed into the front lines to rescue people basically,” Egeland said Thursday. “They are only on one side of the conflict.  The UN, the Red Crescent, the [International Committee of the Red Cross], my own organization [Norwegian Refugee Council] are on both sides but, no, I am impressed by the courageous nature and the sacrifice of the local White Helmet civil defense people. I do not know them beyond that.”

The OPCW, since April 2014, has also spearheaded the collection and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. It is in the final stages of destroying the final two remaining production sites, it said in a report released Friday.

Guterres said in an introduction to the report that the JIM should be replaced with another expert panel to determine who launched the latest attack. The disbanded body found that both Syrian forces and Islamic State had carried out several attacks throughout Syria’s civil war.

Russia, in denying the renewal of the JIM’s mandate, dismissed the group’s work as sloppy and inaccurate and possibly tainted by politics.

“The seriousness of these most recent allegations has further underlined the need for a dedicated, impartial, objective and independent mechanism for attributing responsibility with regard to the use of chemical weapons,” Guterres said. “I call upon the Security Council to continue to work toward this end. Impunity and the absence of international consensus on accountability are escalating the conflict. As I have stated previously, any confirmed use of chemical weapons by any party to the conflict is abhorrent, reprehensible and a clear violation of international law.”

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