Inspectors racing to verify the suspected chemical weapons attack on Douma last month are to take the unprecedented step of exhuming the bodies of some of the victims.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said its fact-finding mission had already gathered over 100 “environmental samples” after finally being granted access to the site on April 21 — two weeks after the suspected attack by Syrian government forces.
But these samples deteriorate quickly. Chemical weapons specialists believe samples taken from the victims may provide incontrovertible proof of whether chlorine or a nerve agent such as sarin was used in the attack, which is claimed to have killed more than 70 people.
The US and its western allies have blamed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for carrying out the attack on Douma last month.
“From the bodies already buried we are looking for ways to exhume if possible and take some biomedical samples,” said Mr Uzumcu, who added it could be a month until the OPCW’s fact-finding mission publishes its report on Douma.
“It is a very sensitive process. That’s why we are very cautious. Although our experts have been able to attend some autopsies in the past this is going to be the first time we have exhumed bodies.”
Chemical weapons experts and OPCW officials said the move to exhume bodies was a positive development after the US and Britain accused Syria and its ally Russia of preventing the investigators from reaching Douma.
After offer. ng to grant immediate access to the inspection team, the international chemical weapons watchdog was subsequently told it was unsafe to inspect the site and collect samples even though journalists had already visited the scene. The team spent a week waiting in the Syrian capital, Damascus, just 16km from where the suspected attack took place.
Mr Uzumcu said he had not been able to verify allegations that inspectors had been blocked or whether evidence had been removed or tampered with by Syrian forces.
Syria has claimed the attack may have been carried out by rebel forces to draw the US and its allies into carrying out air strikes against the Assad regime.
Dave Butler, a UK based chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons specialist, said it was possible victims’ bodies were buried quickly after the attack to prevent them being taken away by Assad regime fighters and to preserve any vapour from chemicals in the skin.
“If I were the inspectors I would want to take a couple of whole bodies back to the laboratory for a complete autopsy,” said Mr Butler.
“Only in this way would they be able to establish if there were any other chemicals other than chlorine used in the attack.”
Images of victims foaming at the mouth and being hosed down by medical staff in the aftermath of the attack prompted the US, France and the UK to launch retaliatory strikes against the Assad regime.
More than 100 cruise missiles were fired by the US and its allies on April 14, aimed at destroying three locations that the US said were a critical part of Syria’s chemical weapons programme.
Mr Assad’s persistent use of chemical weapons — even after his regime declared all stockpiles had been destroyed in 2013 following the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta — has led to criticism that the OPCW was toothless.
Mr Uzumcu admitted the organisation had been “challenged” by the series of chemical weapons attacks in Syria in the five years since he collected the Nobel Peace prize on behalf of the OPCW for its “extensive efforts” to rid the world of chemical weapons.
But he said the organisation, which was set up 21 years ago to police the international chemical weapons convention, did not have the power to initiate investigations and was still reliant on member states’ declaring whether they were clean.
The OPCW does not have a mandate to attribute blame for attacks but Mr Uzumcu said he was now pushing for the watchdog to be given such powers.
“It’s a serious gap,” he told the FT. “The international community has to address this.”
This story was amended to make clear that the OPCW was awarded the Nobel peace price for its global efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.