August 23, 2013 5:58 pm

Race against time to find evidence of Syria gas attack

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A man holds the body of a dead child among bodies of people activists say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region, in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus©Reuters

A man holds the body of a dead child among bodies of people activists say were killed by chemical attack in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus. Reuters

Time is running out for the UN team in Damascus to establish what happened in this week’s alleged toxic gas attack, weapons experts said on Friday.

The 20-member team, which recently arrived in Syria to investigate previous allegations of chemical weapons use, is based a short drive away from the eastern suburbs of the capital, where activists say more than 100 people were killed on Wednesday.

However, the mandate agreed by the UN with the Syrian government does not allow for the team to inspect the sites of the latest, far more serious claims. Nonetheless, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, urged Syria on Friday to allow the inspectors access.

“Unfortunately, the best time to do it would have been an hour after it happened,” said Daniel Kaszeta, an independent defence consultant. “There’s a fairly steep curve dropping off from there in terms of usefulness.”

Michael Elleman, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said investigators should be able to determine the presence of a nerve agent if they got to the site within “a week or two”.

But with shelling reported to be continuing, the potential for the sites to be disrupted was high, said Mr Kaszeta, making it harder to find a “smoking gun” – such as a munition fragment – that would help establish causality.

More than 100 videos were uploaded to the internet on the morning of the alleged attack, showing victims – often children – struggling to breathe and being hosed down with water. Others showed rows of corpses, most with no visible injuries.

“We are daring and risking our lives by uploading videos, and going out to speak with the press, and collecting evidence, but there is a complete silence of the international community,” said a medical worker from the eastern suburb of Douma.

Military experts said that although the videos offered clues, they were not in themselves enough to decide whether a chemical weapon – as opposed to some kind of industrial or crowd-control substance – had caused the symptoms, let alone to determine how it was dispersed and by whom.

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Activists are also trying to get tissue samples out to be tested. The Douma medical worker said local people were attempting to smuggle some blood samples out of the country.

Another activist from the town of Irbin in the eastern suburbs, which was also affected by the alleged attack, told Reuters news agency that he and others were trying to get samples of hair, skin and blood to the UN monitors in Damascus.

Earlier this summer, Britain and France said they had tested samples obtained from Syria which showed that sarin gas had been used on previous occasions.

But weapons experts caution that because the chain of custody is not clear, smuggled samples are no substitute for independent investigators.

“The UN [presence] avoids a lot of the ambiguity that comes out with samples that arrive at your doorstep,” said Mr Elleman.

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