BEIRUT: A team from the world’s chemical weapons watchdog investigating an alleged chlorine attack against rebel-held Kafr Zeita managed to visit the town Tuesday, hours after coming under attack, a Syrian rebel commander said.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been working with the United Nations to oversee the destruction of the Syrian government’s stockpiles since September 2013, when President Bashar Assad’s administration acknowledged it had chemical weapons and agreed to give them up to avoid the threat of U.S. military strikes.
Syria has since destroyed or handed over more than 90 percent of the weapons and toxic chemicals it has formally declared. Its sole remaining declared stockpile has been packaged for shipment out of the country to meet a June 30 destruction deadline.
However, last month allegations surfaced that chlorine gas had been used as a weapon in Kafr Zeita. Chlorine is not banned under chemical weapons conventions, and it was not part of Syria’s disclosures. However, using any toxic material in warfare violates chemical weapons treaties and international law.
The circumstances of Tuesday’s attack were unclear. Syria’s Foreign Ministry initially reported that 11 people, including six members of a U.N. fact-finding mission and their Syrian drivers, had been abducted by rebels fighting to topple Assad’s government. But the OPCW issued a statement shortly afterward saying a convoy had come under attack but “all team members are safe and well and are traveling back to the operating base.”
The Syrian Foreign Ministry said the convoy, which consisted of four vehicles, was heading toward Kfar Zeita, where activists and Human Rights Watch reported gas attacks on April 11 and April 18 that killed two people.
It said the government had agreed to a daylong cease-fire in the town in the central province of Hama “to facilitate the work of this mission.”
As the team reached the nearby government-controlled village of Taibet al-Imam, the government said it was unable to provide protection beyond that point but the team decided to continue without Syrian security forces, according to the statement. A roadside bomb then hit one of the team’s vehicles, forcing the passengers to move to another car and turn back toward Taibet al-Imam, the ministry said. The ministry added that only one vehicle arrived in the village, which is under government control, a fact that might have caused Damascus to issue the statement saying the rest had been abducted.
Syria’s state-run news agency SANA later said the members of the fact-finding mission were released. It was not immediately clear why the regime said members of the team had been abducted when the OPCW said all were safe.
A doctor in Kfar Zeita who identified himself as Abdullah Darwish said the team had been expected to arrive in the village Tuesday and medical officials had prepared for them documents as well as a number of people who suffered during the alleged chlorine attack. But rebels later said the inspection team wouldn’t be coming, Darwish told AP via Skype.
However, in the afternoon the OPCW team “arrived in Kafr Zeita in the company of the Syrian Saiqa force, which is part of the [rebel] Free Syrian Army,” said Colonel Mohammad al-Ali, general commander of the faction.
Amateur video distributed by activists showed two white U.N. vehicles parked in what appeared to be Kafr Zieta, and opposition fighters meeting with a member of the delegation.
Separately, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group, said its own investigations pointed to the regime’s use of poison gas in Kafr Zeita on Apr. 11 and May 22, in attacks that affected nearly 200 people.
The Observatory said its findings were based on testimony from doctors, patients treated at field hospitals, and other residents of the village, and were accompanied by “documented medical reports and video evidence.”
“Those affected showed symptoms of poisoning,” the Observatory said, “such as breathing difficulties, convulsions, respiratory secretions through the mouth and nose, a drop in blood pressure, coughing, and in some extreme cases, the coughing up of blood.”
It said 120 people were injured in the April attack, and around 70 in the incident the following month.
Elsewhere, in the northern city of Raqqa a car bomb by the Lazord Hotel in the Thakneh neighborhood left many wounded, the opposition Local Coordination Committees activist group said.