Photo: EPA
UN inspectors dismantling chemical weapons in Syria.
Photo: EPA
UN reports: Chemical weapons used in Syria are from army stockpile
Human rights investigators also place blame on international community for failing to stop war crimes in Syria.

Chemical weapons used in two incidents in Syria last year appear to come from the stockpiles of the Syrian military, United Nations human rights investigators said on Wednesday in a report that went beyond previous findings.


The team of independent experts, led by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, said that so far they had confirmed the deadly nerve agent sarin was used in three incidents: the Damascus suburb of al-Ghouta on August 21, in Khan al-Assal near Aleppo in March 2013 and in Saraqeb near the northern town of Idlib last April.


The first two attacks bore "the same unique hallmarks," according to the team of some two dozen investigators who include a military advisor.


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"The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents," the UN investigators said in the report.


"Concerning the incident in Khan al-Assal on 19 March, the chemical agents used in that attack bore the same unique hallmarks as those used in al-Ghouta," it said.


Pinheiro said his team was investigating up to 20 incidents where chemical weapons were used.


Chief United Nations investigator Ake Sellstrom, who led a team of inspectors to Syria, reported in December that chemical weapons were likely used in five out of seven attacks they had examined, but did not assign blame.


Sellstrom, without categorically saying which side was to blame, then said in January that it was "difficult to see" how the opposition could have weaponized the toxins used.


The Syrian government and the opposition have accused each other of using chemical weapons, banned under international law, and both have denied it.


President Bashar Assad agreed to destroy his chemical weapons following global outrage over the sarin gas attack at Ghouta in August, the world's deadlist chemical attack in 25 years. It drew a US threat of military strikes that was averted after Assad pledged to give up his chemical arms.


Specialized expertise 

Pinheiro said on Thursday his investigation had relied on the findings of the Sellstrom mission, going further.


"But we had made other investigations in terms of interviews of experts, interviews with functionaries involved," Pinheiro told a news conference.


His team interviewed a broad array of people including doctors, victims, journalists and defectors.


The task was compounded by the fact that Syria has never allowed the UN human rights investigators into the country.


"We conducted our own investigation including specialized expertise and of course we have been in close contact with the members of this Sellstrom mission," Pinheiro said.


It was not able to establish a verifiable casualty figure from the attacks, he said, adding: "What we can say is that at least several hundred people were affected."


Syria has shipped out about a third of its chemical weapons stockpile, including mustard gas, for destruction abroad, the global chemical arms watchdog said on Tuesday.


World powers failed to stop war crimes 

The report also assigned responsibility to world powers for allowing the war crimes in Syria to persist.


The UN investigators found that all sides in Syria's civil war are using shelling and siege tactics to punish and starve civilians.


The independent investigators, presenting their latest report documenting atrocities in Syria, called again on the UN Security Council to refer grave violations of the rules of war to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution.


"The Security Council bears responsibility for not addressing accountability and allowing the warring parties to violate these rules with total impunity," Paulo Pinheiro, who leads the UN commission of inquiry, told a news conference.


"One of most stark trends we have documented is the use of siege warfare, the denial of humanitarian aid, food and basic necessities such as medical care and clean water have forced people to choose between surrender and starvation."


More than 140,000 have been killed in the conflict, which enters its fourth year next week, 2.5 million refugees have fled abroad and 6.5 million people are uprooted within Syria.


Divided world powers have backed both sides in the conflict and a diplomatic deadlock has exacerbated the bloodshed.


Fighters and their commanders may be held accountable, but also states which transfer weapons to Syria, the report said.


Syrian government forces under President Assad have besieged towns including the Old City of Homs, shelling relentlessly and depriving them of food as part of a "starvation until submission" campaign, the report said.


It said the Syrian air force had dropped barrel bombs on Aleppo with "shocking intensity," killing hundreds of civilians and injuring many more.


"I remember most vividly speaking to a doctor who was treating survivors of barrel bomb attacks. Some victims including infants had lost limbs," said Pinheiro.


Insurgents fighting to topple Assad, especially foreign Islamic fighters including the al-Qaeda affiliated ISIS, have stepped up attacks on civilians, taken hostages, executed prisoners and set off car bombs to spread terror, it said.


The report, covering July 15-January 20, is the seventh by the United Nations since the inquiry was set up in September 2011, six months after the anti-Assad revolt began.


The investigators have not been allowed into Syria, but their latest findings were based on 563 interviews conducted by Skype or by telephone with victims and witnesses still in the country or in person with refugees in surrounding countries.


Four lists of suspects

All sides have violated the rules of war embodied in the Geneva Conventions, according to the team of two dozen who include former UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte.


It has now drawn up four confidential lists of suspects.


War crimes had been committed on both sides, including torture, massacres, rapes and recruitment of child soldiers.


Pinheiro, asked about Assad's responsibility, declined to be more specific about names on the lists of suspects. "We mentioned several times the responsibility of people in high echelons in the government."


"The reports, if they were not able to ensure accountability in the present, I think that they will be important material for the future. But also our data bank and list of perpetrators that we have established," he added.


Despite some tactical gains by Syrian government forces backed by more foreign combat forces of Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi militia, the fighting has reached a stalemate, causing significant casualties and material losses, the report said.


"The government relied extensively on the superior firepower of its air force and artillery, while non-state armed groups increasingly resorted to methods of asymmetric warfare, such as suicide bombs and use of improvised explosive devices."


As part of a strategy aimed at weakening the insurgents and breaking the will of their popular base, government forces have besieged and bombarded civilian areas, it said.


"Partial sieges aimed at expelling armed groups turned into tight blockades that prevented the delivery of basic supplies, including food and medicine, as part of a 'starvation until submission' campaign."


Rebels throughout Syria have "inflicted severe physical or mental pain or suffering on civilian populations in areas under their control", including on prisoners, it said.


Referring to the northern Raqqa area under control of an al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the report said: "The acts committed by non-state armed groups ... in areas under their control against the civilian population constitute torture and inhuman treatment as a war crime and, in the context of (Raqqa), as a crime against humanity."


Rebels have encircled Nubl and Zahra, besieging 45,000 people in the two Shi'ite towns in Aleppo province, it said.


"The siege is imposed by groups affiliated to the Islamic Front, Jaish Al Mujahedeen, Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Syrian Revolutionary Front by checkpoints erected around the area and by cutting off their electrical and water supply lines."


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