UN panel says evidence of sarin use by Syrian rebels ‘not conclusive’

Former war crimes prosecutor had indicated rebel forces used nerve agent

Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons while walking down a debris-filled street in the al-Ziyabiya area in Damascus. Photograph: Ward Al-Keswani/Reuters

Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons while walking down a debris-filled street in the al-Ziyabiya area in Damascus. Photograph: Ward Al-Keswani/Reuters

Mon, May 6, 2013, 09:23

A UN panel looking into war crimes in Syria today said it has not found conclusive evidence of chemical weapons use, backing away from a member’s claims that there are indications rebel forces used the nerve agent sarin.

The commission “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,” the panel said.

The statement comes after panel member and former war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte told Swiss TV that the commission has indications that Syrian rebel forces used nerve agent sarin as a weapon.

In the interview broadcast last night, Ms Del Ponte said the the panel’s investigators have “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas from the way the victims were treated” - but no evidence government forces also used sarin as a chemical weapon.

She said the indications are based on interviews with victims, doctors and field hospitals in neighbouring countries, though doubts were raised about her contention because the panel has mostly been interviewing refugees who oppose president Bashar Assad’s regime.

The chairman, Brazilian diplomat and scholar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, said the panel “reminds all parties to the conflict that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited in all circumstances under customary international humanitarian law”.

Dr 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.

The civil war began with anti-government protests in March 2011. The conflict has now claimed an estimated 70,000 lives and forced 1.2 million Syrian refugees to flee.

The United States has said it has “varying degrees of confidence” that sarin has been used by Syria’s government on its people.

President Barack Obama last year declared that the use or deployment of chemical weapons by Dr Assad would cross a “red line”.

Reuters