U.S. says it has indications toxic chemical used in Syria this month


The United States has indications that a toxic chemical, probably chlorine, was used in Syria this month and is examining whether the Syrian government was responsible, the U.S. State Department said on Monday.

“We have indications of the use of a toxic industrial chemical” in the town of Kfar Zeita, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, referring to a rebel-held area.

“We are examining allegations that the government was responsible,” she told a regular news briefing. “Obviously there needs to be an investigation of what's happened here.”

Syrian opposition activists reported that helicopters dropped chlorine gas on Kfar Zeita on April 11 and 12. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told ABC television's “This Week” on April 13 that the attack was “unsubstantiated.”

Psaki said chlorine was not one of the priority one or two chemicals Syria declared to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) under a Russian-U.S. agreement for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.

Psaki said the United States was still trying to determine the facts.

“We take all allegations of the use of chemicals in combat use very seriously,” she said.” We'll work with the OPCW, who is obviously overseeing the implementation, and determine if any violation occurred.”

A U.N. inquiry found in December that sarin gas had likely been used in Jobar, on the outskirts of Damascus, in August and in several other locations, including in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where hundreds of people were killed.

The Ghouta attack caused global outrage and a U.S. threat of military strikes that was dropped after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pledged to destroy his chemical weapons arsenal.

The Syrian government failed to meet a February 5 deadline to move all of its declared chemical substances and precursors, some 1,300 metric tons, out of the country. It has since agreed to remove the weapons by late April.

Rebel activists posted photographs and video they said showed an improvised chlorine bomb to back up their claims about Kfar Zeita. The government accused rebels of using the chemical.

Asked about the government charge, Psaki said:

“We're examining allegations. We're obviously looking at the facts on the ground. We shouldn't forget the context of what the regime has been capable of in the past.”

Psaki rejected presidential elections announced by Syria on Monday as “a parody of democracy” with no credibility.

“Staging elections under current conditions, including the effective disenfranchisement of millions of Syrians, neither addresses the aspirations of the Syrian people, nor moves the country any closer to a negotiated political solution,” she said.

Syria announced a presidential election for June 3, preparing the ground for Assad to defy widespread opposition and extend his grip on power, days after he said the civil war was turning in his favor.

Last week, opposition activists accused Assad's forces of a new poison gas attack in the Syrian capital and posted footage of four men being treated by medics.

They said this chemical attack, the fourth the opposition has reported this month, was in the Harasta neighborhood of Damascus.

Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Oatis

Israel sees safe passage for chemical arms out of Syria


Internationally-monitored convoys removing Syrian chemical weapons are at little risk of being seized by rebels fighting President Bashar Assad or by his Lebanese Hezbollah allies, a senior Israeli military officer said on Tuesday.

The estimate suggested that Israel, which repeatedly bombed targets in Syria last year to prevent suspected transfers from Assad's arsenal to hostile guerrillas, was holding fire as tonnes of toxins are trucked out – in some cases through war zones not under Assad's control.

“We are not poised for a situation in which a convoy encounters rebels. This is something being addressed by the international forces that are there,” the officer told Reuters, referring to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is overseeing the disarmament process.

He assessed the OPCW's role would also prevent Hezbollah, which has fighters in Syria helping Assad battle an almost three-year-old rebellion, from redirecting trucks to Lebanon.

“I reckon such a scenario is not possible,” said the officer, who declined to be named under military secrecy.

Syria agreed to abandon its chemical weapons by June under a deal worked out by Russia and the United States after an August 21 sarin gas attack near Damascus that Western nations blamed on Assad forces. The government blames rebels for the attack.

Around 1,300 tonnes of Syrian chemical weapons are slated for decommissioning. Some are to be shipped from Latakia port for destruction on a specially converted U.S. vessel.

Syria loaded a first batch of chemicals onto a Danish cargo vessel last Tuesday, a week after missing the original December 31 target to ship out all the deadliest chemicals. The OPCW has called on Assad's government to speed up the process. An official contacted by Reuters on Tuesday declined to say whether any further cargoes had been loaded onto ships.

ENTIRE ARSENAL OUT?

Israel is an old enemy of Syria under Assad's family, and of Hezbollah, but also feels threatened by the Islamist-led rebels. It has welcomed the stripping of Syria's chemical arsenal while warning world powers that Damascus could renege.

“We are very preoccupied by places (in Syria) where – perhaps – the weapons have not been dismantled, and remain, and may end up in Lebanon,” the Israeli officer said, without elaborating. “We are looking very closely for this, and we really do not want it to happen.”

Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which has tens of thousands of rockets as well as riflemen, fought Israel's technologically superior forces to a standstill in a 2006 border war and poses its most immediate threat. But some Israeli officials doubt the militia would try to obtain chemical weapons.

Regional security sources said that on at least three occasions last year Israel bombed convoys or depots in Syria that it believed held advanced weapons destined for Hezbollah.

Israel has not formally confirmed carrying out those raids, which drew retaliation threats from Damascus. While not commenting on specific actions, the Israeli officer acknowledged that intervening militarily now could upset a disarmament campaign coordinated by numerous foreign powers.

“I know that, as of now, no convoy has been harmed. I don't know what will happen tomorrow, but I am not preparing for a situation in which I would be the one 'protecting' these convoys,” the officer said.

Asked if the possibility of inadvertently harming foreigners accompanying the convoys might stay Israel's hand, the officer said: “Yes, unequivocally.”

“We very much do not want to undermine this process of the chemical weapons being dismantled. It is a dramatic event in terms of Israel's security outlook. It is, without a doubt, an achievement.”

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, editing by Mark Heinrich

Israel, others urged to join chemical arms treaty


Israel, Egypt and North Korea should renounce chemical weapons, especially after Syria joined the convention banning them and three other nations plan to do so, the chief of an international watchdog said on Tuesday.

Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said Angola, Myanmar and South Sudan were preparing to join the pact.

“Now since Syria has become a member country, I think (Israel) can reconsider,” Uzumcu told Reuters in Oslo, where he accepted the 2013 Nobel award for the OPCW.

Israel, which has observer status at the OPCW, signed the convention in 1993, but has never ratified it.

As with its presumed nuclear arsenal, Israel has never publicly admitted having chemical weapons. Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said in September that Israel would be ready to discuss the issue when there was peace in the Middle East.

“I don't see any excuse for not joining the convention,” Uzumcu said. “Three (nations) are very close to membership and I hope the others will reconsider their positions.”

The OPCW's mission gained critical importance this year after a sarin gas attack outside Damascus in August killed hundreds of people, exacerbating a 2-1/2-year-old conflict in Syria in which more than 100,000 have died.

Syria then agreed under a deal arranged by the United States and Russia to destroy all of its 1,300 metric tons of sarin, mustard gas and other lethal agents, averting U.S. missile strikes.

“The only consolation is that those attacks led to renewed efforts by the international community to eliminate them,” Uzumcu said, referring to chemical weapons around the world.

CHALLENGES

Work is Syria is hampered by security challenges and needs more money but the Syrian government is doing its best to cooperate and OPCW expects soon to secure a port where the deadliest chemicals can be neutralized offshore, he said.

“There are some contacts which are under way and we may be informed within a week to 10 days,” Uzumcu said, without identifying the port. “The Syrian government has been quite cooperative, constructive and transparent so far.”

The United States is donating a naval ship and equipment to destroy Syria's most dangerous chemical weapons but securing a port has proven especially difficult and the OPCW is at risk of missing its December 31 deadline to remove these weapons from Syria.

Getting rid of the less dangerous weapons is also a challenge, unless more funds are forthcoming, Uzumcu said.

“The financial contributions have been encouraging but we expect more because we have built a trust fund for the second category of chemical substances, which will have to be destroyed at commercial plants,” he said.

“The United States will cover all the costs for the priority-one chemical weapons. For the second category of weapons, we estimate 35 to 40 million euros,” Uzumcu said.

The OPCW hopes to remove all chemical weapons from Syria by February 5 and to destroy them by June 30. The most dangerous of the chemicals, about 500 metric tons, will be processed by the United States and stored at an undetermined location.

The U.S. ship cannot sail into a Syrian port so current plans call for Danish and Norwegian merchant ships to get the chemicals out, some to be transferred to the U.S. vessel and the less lethal ones to commercial chemical plants for incineration.

Reporting by Balazs Koranyi; Editing by Alistair Lyon