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UN's Carla Del Ponte says there is evidence rebels 'used sarin' in Syria

A United Nations inquiry into human rights abuses in Syria has found evidence to suggest that rebel forces may have used chemical weapons, its lead investigator has revealed.

Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN independent commission of inquiry on Syria, said that testimony gathered from casualties and medical staff indicated that the nerve agent sarin gas was used by rebel fighters.

"Our investigators have been in neighbouring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated," Ms Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss-Italian television, broadcast on Sunday.

"This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities," she added, speaking in Italian.

Ms Del Ponte added that the inquiry has yet to see any direct evidence suggesting that government forces have used chemical weapons, but said further investigation was required before this possibility could be ruled out.

The UN inquiry later issued a statement to clarify Ms Del Ponte's remarks. It said the team behind the investigation "has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict."

The new claims come one week after the United States said it had "varying degrees of confidence" that sarin had been used by Syria's government on its people.

President Barack Obama had previously declared that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would cross a "red line" and change US calculations on whether it should intervene in the conflict.

Calls for the US to launch military action against the Syrian regime have grown stronger since claims that it used chemical weapons first emerged.

Both sides in Syria's two-year-old conflict have accused the other of using chemical weapons - a war crime under international law. The alleged attacks took place in Aleppo in March and Homs in December. Claims from both sides are based in part on testimony from casualties and medical staff.

An investigation looking specifically into claims of chemical weapons use in Syria was ordered by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in late March. The Syrian government wants the UN team to probe only the Aleppo attack, but the UN has insisted that the inquiry to cover both incidents.

The United States and Syria both believe a credible UN investigation is the best way to establish chemical weapons use. But nearly six weeks after Syria initially asked for such an inquiry, investigators have been unable to enter the country.

The investigation which Ms Del Ponte referred was launched in August 2011 to look into war crimes and other human rights violations in Syria. It is separate from that which was announced by Ban Ki-Moon into chemical weapons use.

A UN source speaking on the condition of anonymity told The Independent that Ms Del Ponte's investigation is broader than the one focusing purely on chemical weapons use, but added that chemical weapons falls under its remit.

The source said that the commission gathered over 1000 testimonies from those in Syria via Skype, and from people who have fled Syria into neighbouring countries.

The foreign office issued a cautious statement in response to the new claims yesterday.

A spokesman said: "Use of chemical weapons is a war crime and reports of their use is extremely concerning. Evidence is limited at this time and we are working actively with our allies, partners and the UN to get more and better information."

The claims by Ms Del Ponte come after Israel carried out a series of air strikes on Syrian military targets early Sunday. Israeli officials have said the strikes were against long-range missiles being transported to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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

[Source: By Richard Hall, The Independent, London, 06May13]

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small logoThis document has been published on 07May13 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.