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Assad's air force attacked Syrian civilians with sarin, chlorine, says watchdog

Secretary of State Pompeo said the report is part of a "large and growing body of evidence" the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons against its own people.
Douma in Syria
Children walk in a devastated area of Douma in Eastern Ghouta, Syria, on April 16, 2018, where chemical weapons were suspected to have been used against citizens. The OPCW has concluded that three 2017 attacks in Latamneh were carried out by the Assad regime and involved chlorine and the nerve agent sarin.Kyodo

WASHINGTON — The international chemical weapons watchdog said Wednesday that Syria's air force carried out three chemical weapons attacks using sarin and chlorine in March 2017 on the town of Latamneh, including a strike on a hospital.

The findings were issued by a new investigative team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, and were based on interviews with witnesses, samples from the sites, laboratory results, and analyses of munition remnants and other information, the report said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the report, saying it represented "the latest in a large and growing body of evidence that the Assad regime uses chemical weapons attacks in Syria as part of a deliberate campaign of violence against the Syrian people."

Fernando Arias
Fernando Arias, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), speaks during talks in Moscow on April 2, 2019.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

"The United States shares the OPCW's conclusions and assesses that the Syrian regime retains sufficient chemicals — specifically sarin and chlorine — and expertise from its traditional chemical weapons (CW) program to use sarin, to produce and deploy chlorine munitions, and to develop new CW," Pompeo said in a statement.

The attacks carried out in March 2017 confirmed Syria's continued use of chemical weapons and showed an "utter disregard for human life," Pompeo said.

The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran in its civil war, has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons. But the detailed OPCW report said the authorities in Damascus refused to cooperate with the investigation despite repeated requests.

The 82-page report said that on March 24, 2017, a Su-22 warplane from the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian Arab Air Force took off from Shayrat airbase and dropped a bomb loaded with sarin nerve agent on the small central town of Latamneh, which was held by rebel forces.

The bomb landed in an open field, killing livestock and birds and injuring some 16 people, it said.

Then on the afternoon of March 25, a Syrian regime helicopter dropped a cylinder with chlorine on the town's hospital, the report said. The cylinder penetrated the hospital's roof, "ruptured, and released chlorine, affecting at least 30 persons," according to the report. The victims included a surgeon who was performing an operation at the time of the assault.

Two days later, an Su-22 jet dropped an M4000 aerial bomb containing sarin in southern Latamneh. At least 60 people were affected, the report said, but no one was killed in the attack.

"Military operations of such a strategic nature as these three attacks only occur pursuant to orders from the highest levels of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces," the report stated.

In his statement, Pompeo called on the international community to hold Syria to account for employing chemical weapons.

"We urge other nations to join our efforts to promote accountability for the Syrian regime and uphold the international norm against chemical weapons use," Pompeo said. "The unchecked use of chemical weapons by any state presents an unacceptable security threat to all states and cannot occur with impunity."

The OPCW's investigative team was created after Russia blocked the extension of a joint UN-OPCW investigation that was set up in 2015 and accused Syria of using chlorine in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015 and of unleashing the nerve agent sarin in an aerial attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 that killed about 100 people.

The Syrian government has consistently denied using chemical weapons.