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Syrian air force behind chemical attacks, investigation team finds

Officials in the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its military backer Russia have repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and accuse insurgents of staging attacks to implicate Syrian forces.

FILE: A Syrian child receives treatment following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province on 4 April 2017. Picture: AFP

IDLIB – Syrian Arab Air Force pilots flying Sukhoi Su-22 military planes and a helicopter dropped bombs containing poisonous chlorine and sarin nerve gas on a village in the country’s western Hama region in March 2017, a new team at the global chemical weapons watchdog has concluded in its first report.

The special investigative unit was established by members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2018 to identify perpetrators of illegal attacks.

Until now the OPCW had only been authorised to say whether chemical attacks occurred, not who perpetrated them.

Officials in the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its military backer Russia have repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and accuse insurgents of staging attacks to implicate Syrian forces.

The OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), the formation of which was opposed by Moscow and Damascus, said more than 100 people were affected by the attacks, carried out on 24, and 30 March in 2017 in the town of Ltamenah.

Syria’s 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian Air Force dropped M4000 aerial bombs containing sarin on the town and a cylinder containing chlorine on a hospital, a summary of the report said. The raids were conducted from the Sharat and Hama air bases, it said.

While individuals were identified by the OPCW investigators, their names have been redacted from the report, which was to be circulated to the OPCW’s 193 member states on Wednesday.

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators of the use of sarin as a chemical weapon in Ltamenah on 24, and 30 March in 2017 and the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon on 25 March 2017, were individuals belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force,” OPCW team leader Santiago Onate-Laborde said in a statement.

“Attacks of such a strategic nature would only have taken place on the basis of orders from the higher authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic military command,” he said.

The OPCW’s identification team is not a judicial body and it will be up to the OPCW’s members, the UN Secretary General and the international community to “take any further action they deem appropriate and necessary” OPCW chief Fernando Arias said.

An attack on the Syrian town of Douma led US President Donald Trump to carry out missile strikes on Syrian government targets in April 2018 with the backing of France and Britain.

Created in 1997, the OPCW was initially a technical body to enforce a global non-proliferation treaty, but it has become the focus of diplomatic conflict between Syria and Russia on one side and the United States, France and Britain on the other.