French foreign minister says Syria has likely used chlorine gas in recent attacks

05/13/2014 5:18 PM

05/14/2014 7:28 AM

In comments to reporters Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said there was strong evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons, including chlorine gas, in 14 small-scale attacks since Syria agreed to join the world’s ban on such weapons last fall.

The French minister, however, did not raise the allegations in talks that he held with Secretary of State John Kerry before he met with reporters, the State Department said.

Fabius made his comments shortly after the advocacy group Human Rights Watch released a report that said that evidence it has reviewed “strongly suggests” that regime helicopters dropped improvised explosives known as barrel bombs loaded with chlorine gas cylinders on three towns in northern Syria in mid-April. The report noted that only the Syrian government operates helicopters.

Rebel activists have accused the Syrian government of using chlorine gas on several occasions in recent weeks. The Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, the international body that monitors compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, currently is investigating whether chlorine munitions have been used in Syria. Syria agreed to join the convention, which bans such weapons, after the United States threatened it with military attacks after hundreds of Syrian civilians died in a chemical attack last August outside Damascus.

Chlorine is found in numerous household and industrial products, but its use as a weapon is banned under the convention.

“We have at least 14 indications that show us that in the past recent weeks again chemical weapons in a smaller scale have been used,” Fabius said. “Right now we are examining the samples that were taken.”

Fabius said that the evidence suggests that Assad still can produce chemical weapons even though OPCW inspectors have said the equipment needed to manufacture and load chemical weapons has been destroyed. Most of Syria’s chemical weapons stores have been shipped out of Syria, but a small amount remains on a base in Damascus. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged Tuesday reports that the last shipment has been delayed because rebels control the roads leading to Syria’s coast.

“The problem that we have is that there are security challenges to get those moved to the port and to get the last chemical weapons and the precursors onto the ship,” he told reporters accompanying him on a visit to Saudi Arabia, according to a Defense Department transcript.

Kerry and Fabius are to meet again in London on Thursday for further talks on Syria with nine European and Arab governments that also back the flagging, divided moderate Syrian opposition, whose leader, Ahmad Jarba, has been in Washington this week seeking more aid, including heavy weapons.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to comment on Fabius’ allegations on the use of chlorine by Assad’s forces. She said Fabius and Kerry had discussed “the importance of removing the remaining declared chemical weapons, but they did not discuss the specifics of what the foreign minister announced from his press conference.”

The Human Rights Watch report said at least 11 people died in attacks between April 11 and April 21 and that nearly 500 people showed symptoms of chlorine exposure. The report cited interviews with 10 witnesses, including five medical personnel.

“Witnesses told Human Rights Watch they saw a helicopter dropping a barrel bomb or heard a helicopter immediately prior to an explosion, followed immediately by a peculiar odor,” the report said. “The witnesses consistently described the clinical signs and symptoms of exposure to a choking agent (also known as a lung or pulmonary agent) by victims.”

If the OPCW substantiates the allegations, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who originally proposed the deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical warfare capabilities, would come under pressure to use Russia’s influence to rein in Assad, said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association.

“I think it puts Assad in an awkward position and it puts Russia in an awkward position,” he said.

President Barack Obama also could face new questions about his deal with Putin _ and overall U.S. policy toward Syria.

In 2012, Obama cautioned Assad against crossing a “red line” of using chemical weapons against civilians, something the administration and European allies accused the Syria military of doing last August. But Obama canceled his threat to strike Assad’s chemical weapons sites after reaching the deal with Putin.

At his news conference, Fabius said that France regretted that Obama canceled the strikes.

“We think it would have changed lots of things,” he said. “But what is done is done, and we’re not going to rewrite history.”

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