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World's chemical watchdog confirms 'systematic' chlorine attacks in Syria

Fact-finding mission establishes 'compelling confirmation' that a toxic chemical was used 'systematically and repeatedly' in northern Syria
A retired officer from the army shows how to use a home-made gas mask (AFP)
The world's chemical watchdog on Wednesday confirmed the "systematic" use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria, according to a report by its team investigating alleged attacks there.

The fact-finding mission established "compelling confirmation" that a toxic chemical was used "systematically and repeatedly" as a weapon in villages in northern Syria earlier this year, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said in a statement.

"The descriptions, physical properties, behaviour of the gas, and signs and symptoms resulting from exposure, as well as the response of patients to the treatment, leads the mission to conclude with a high degree of confidence that chlorine, either pure or in mixture, is the toxic chemical in question."

The OPCW said that reports of chlorine attacks in Syria dropped off after the fact-finding mission was established in April, "but there was a spate of new allegations in August".

Spokesman Michael Luhan said the new claims would be investigated.

The fact-finding mission's initial report in June said that evidence "lends credence" to the view that chlorine had been used in attacks in the villages of Talmanes, al-Tamana and Kafr Zeita.

President Bashar al-Assad's regime and rebels have both accused the other of using chemical agents, including chlorine, in the bloody uprising that began in March 2011 and has contined despite Damascus promising to hand over all its chemical arms.

The OPCW team probing the allegations was attacked with a roadside bomb and gunfire in May, preventing them accessing the site of an alleged attack in the village of Kafr Zeita.

However, while they were unable to gain access, the team interviewed victims, doctors and eyewitnesses about the attacks, and analysed documentation including videos and medical records, the OPCW said.

Chlorine is a widely available chemical, that is non-persistent and so conclusively proving its use is a challenging task.

The chlorine probe came after France and the United States alleged that Assad's forces may have unleashed industrial chemicals rebel-held village in recent months.

Syria did not have to declare its stockpile of chlorine - a weak toxic agent that can be considered a chemical weapon if used offensively - as part of a disarmament deal agreed last year as it is widely used for commercial and domestic purposes.

UN-mandated human rights investigators said in the last month they believed the Syrian government dropped chlorine on civilian areas on eight different occasions in April.

"Reasonable grounds exist to believe that chemical agents, likely chlorine, were used on [northern Syrian villages] Kafr Zeita, al-Tamana and Talmanes in eight incidents within a 10-day period in April," the independent Commission of Enquiry on the rights situation in Syria said in a report.

All of Syria's declared stockpile of dangerous chemicals has now either been destroyed in the country or has been exported for destruction as part of a deal agreed a year ago in a bid to head off US-backed air strikes on the Syrian regime following a deadly chemical weapon attack in a Damascus suburb.

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