Keystone, Salvatore Di Nolfi, Associated Press
UNITED NATIONS — U.N. inspectors said Monday there is "clear and convincing evidence" that chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale in an attack last month in Syria that killed hundreds of people.
The findings represent the first official confirmation by scientific experts that chemical weapons were used in Syria's civil war, but the report left the key question of who launched the attack unanswered.
The rebels and their U.S. and Western supporters have said the regime of President Bashar Assad was behind the Aug. 21 attack, while the Syrian government and its closest ally, Russia, blame the rebels.
U.S., British and French diplomats said the findings of the U.N. inspectors supported their conclusion that Assad regime was to blame. Russia disagreed.
Secretary of State John Kerry briefed U.S. allies on a broad agreement reached over the weekend with Russia to end Syria's chemical weapons program, pressing for broad support for the plan that averted U.S. military strikes. Kerry met in Paris with his counterparts from France, Britain, Turkey and Saudi Arabia before seeking a U.N. resolution that would detail how the international community can secure and destroy Syria's stockpile and precursor chemicals.
As a sign of possible difficulties ahead, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sparred Monday over possible military action if Syria doesn't abandon its chemical weapons.
And in Geneva, the chairman of a U.N. war crimes panel said it is investigating 14 suspected chemical attacks in Syria, dramatically escalating the stakes. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said the panel had not pinpointed the chemical used or who is responsible.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon presented the U.N. inspectors' report to a closed meeting of the U.N. Security Council before its release.
"This is a war crime and a grave violation of ... international law," Ban told the council in remarks distributed to the press. "The results are overwhelming and indisputable. The facts speak for themselves. ... The international community has a responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable and to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare."
The inspectors' report said "the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used ... in the Ghouta area of Damascus" on Aug. 21.
"The conclusion is that chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale," the inspectors said in their report to Ban.
"This result leaves us with the deepest concern," they added.
Syria initially called for a U.N. investigation of an alleged chemical attack on Khan Al-Assal near Aleppo on March 19, which it blamed on the rebels. But when the U.S., Britain and France reported other alleged attacks, the secretary-general insisted on broadening the investigation, which the Syrians opposed.
After months of negotiations, an agreement was reached in August for U.N. inspectors to go to the sites of Khan Al-Assal and two other alleged attacks. But its mandate was limited, reportedly at Syria's insistence, to report on whether chemical weapons were used and if so which ones — not on who was responsible.
The rebels and their Western and Arab supporters blame President Bashar Assad's regime for the attack in the rebel-controlled area of Ghouta. The Assad regime insists that the attack was carried out by rebels. The U.N. report mentions the Ghouta areas of Ein Tarma, Moadamiyeh and Zamalka, all of which were featured in the videos of victims that emerged shortly after the attack.
The report cited a number of facts supporting its conclusion:
— Rocket fragments were found to contain sarin.
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