The world’s chemical watchdog says it is sending a fact-finding mission to probe the recent alleged use of chlorine gas in the Syrian conflict.
The head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Uzumcu, announced “the creation of an OPCW mission to establish facts surrounding allegations of use of chlorine in Syria”, a statement said.
He told a meeting of the body’s executive council at headquarters in The Hague that the mission would leave soon.
“The Syrian government, which has agreed to accept this mission, has undertaken to provide security in areas under its control,” the statement said.
“The mission will carry out its work in the most challenging circumstances.”
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed support for the mission and the UN will provide security logistics.
The OPCW and the UN are already in the process of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons as part of a disarmament deal agreed last August in the wake of deadly sarin nerve agent attacks outside Damascus.
The new probe comes after France and the United States alleged that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces may have unleashed industrial chemicals on a rebel-held village in central Hama province this month.
France made the first claim last week with President Francois Hollande saying his country had “information” – no proof – that Assad’s regime was still using chemical weapons despite the August deal.
The United States has said it is investigating the allegations.
“We have indications of the use of a toxic industrial chemical, probably chlorine, in Syria this month, in the opposition-dominated village of Kafr Zita,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on April 21.
There have been conflicting accounts of the alleged chlorine attack on Kafr Zita, with the government and the opposition trading blame.
Activists have also reported other chlorine gas attacks, most recently in Idlib province, in the northwest, last week.
Syria has handed over or destroyed all but around eight per cent of its chemical material under the terms of the US and Russian-brokered deal, which averted the threat of US military action last year.
It was supposed to have handed over all of its stockpile by Sunday. But the remainder is still being held at one site in the war-torn nation.
Syria was not required to declare its stockpile of chlorine – a toxic but weak agent – as part of the disarmament deal, as it is widely used for commercial and domestic purposes.
Under the US-Russian deal negotiated last year, Syria signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to the destruction of its entire chemical weapons arsenal by June 30 of this year.
The agreement was reached after deadly chemical attacks outside Damascus last August that reportedly killed hundreds of people. The West blamed Assad’s regime but the government said rebels were behind it.