UN says it is not too late to gather evidence of alleged Syria chemical attack

Experts warn that traces of chemicals will degrade rapidly

A UN chemical weapons expert gathers evidence in a Damascus suburb yesterday. Photograph: Ahmad Alshami

A UN chemical weapons expert gathers evidence in a Damascus suburb yesterday. Photograph: Ahmad Alshami


The United Nations said yesterday it would still be possible for a UN team of chemical weapons experts to gather the necessary evidence to investigate last week’s alleged gas attack in suburbs east of Damascus.

“Despite the passage of a number of days, the secretary general [Ban Ki-moon] is confident that the team will be able to obtain and analyse evidence relevant for its investigation of the 21 August incident,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters.

The UN team visited the site yesterday. Britain said on Sunday that evidence of the attack, which is believed to have killed hundreds of people, could already have been destroyed ahead of a visit to the site by UN inspectors.

Reliable evidence will be key to the deliberations of the inspection team, led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom.

Traces of chemicals on munitions fragments, buildings and impact craters will already have degraded. It will also have become difficult to detect anything in the urine of inhabitants in the outskirts of Damascus. Perpetrators will have had days to try to cover up proof of the attack, experts said.

Ralf Trapp, a disarmament expert who worked for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is supplying experts to the UN team, said traces of chemicals in a victim’s urine fade within days, though blood could contain traces for weeks.

Some feared the UN team would arrive too late to gather any meaningful samples.

‘Calculated manoeuvres’
Former UN advisor George A Lopez accused Bashar al-Assad’s regime of applying “calculated manoeuvres” to counter UN and world reaction. “Assad forces continued conventional shelling of the area, while locals and others cleared away bodies,” he said.

“This hastened breakdown and contamination of chemical compounds needed to provide undeniable proof of the type of gas, its concentration level, and its source to the inspectors.”

Inspectors will also have to safeguard the integrity of the samples. They have to make sure containers and vials transported to the laboratories for analysis follow a strict chain of custody, accompanied by exhaustive documentation “to be able to demonstrate that the samples have not been tampered with”, Mr Trapp said. – (Reuters)