UN: Syrian army was behind April gas attack and Russia made it worse

GENEVA, Albert Otti (dpa) - UN rights investigators have concluded that Syria's air force carried out a deadly nerve gas attack in April that drew international condemnation, while Russian strikes helped to destroy hospitals that could have treated victims.
In addition to the sarin gas attack - which killed more than 80 people in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 - Syrian government forces repeatedly used chlorine gas between March and July, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported Wednesday.

The findings, presented in Geneva, go further than those from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is based in The Hague. That group confirmed in June that sarin was used in Khan Sheikhoun, but did not identify the attacker.
The Commission of Inquiry said in its report that it collected evidence from dozens of victims, witnesses and emergency workers, as well as from photos and satellite images.
The rights investigators also ruled out an explanation by Syria's ally, Russia, which has suggested that sarin could have been released when an airstrike hit an arms depot.
The commission said such a strike would have destroyed most of the nerve gas inside the building, rather than releasing it widely.
"In view of the above, the commission finds that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian forces attacked [Khan Sheikhoun] with a sarin bomb at approximately 6:45 am on 4 April," the report read, noting that this use of chemical weapons was a war crime.
Russia's Foreign Ministry disputed the charges, calling them propaganda.
"You can view this document as amateurish and propaganda-like in nature, but in no way could you view it as professional and objective," said Mikhail Ulyanov, director of arms control at the ministry, late on Wednesday.
He questioned how useful the report could be, since investigators never went to the site, instead relying on witness testimony.
"The likelihood that the incident was staged, which is indicated by a lot of evidence, was completely ignored by the authors," he told the Interfax news agency.
The UN findings added that Russian and Syrian forces had hit hospitals in the vicinity shortly before and after the incident, "thus preventing victims of chemical attacks from obtaining essential medical treatment."
In one instance, a Syrian air force helicopter dropped an improvised chlorine bomb on the al-Latamneh hospital on March 25.
"The parties to this horrific conflict must fundamentally realign their tactics with basic notions of humanity," said Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the Brazilian who heads the commission.
The commission also said it was "gravely concerned" that the US-led operation to defeat terrorists in Syria has forced 190,000 people to flee and has left significant numbers of civilians dead.
The report singled out a US airstrike against a mosque in al-Jinneh village in northern Syria on March 16 during a religious gathering. The UN has confirmed that 38 people were killed and 26 injured.
The UN investigators found no evidence for US claims that a building in the religious compound was used by al-Qaeda extremists as a meeting place.
"The United States targeting team lacked an understanding of the actual target, including that it was part of a mosque where worshippers gathered to pray every Thursday," the report said.
The US had violated the international rules of war that are meant to protect civilians, the report found.
Since the Commission of Inquiry was set up in 2011, it has linked Syrian government forces and Islamic State extremists with the most serious types of violations, such as crimes against humanity and genocide.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said Wednesday that the defeat of Islamic State is drawing closer, as the army is about to break the extremists' siege of the Syrian city of Deir al-Zour.
"It's a matter of a few hours now," he said about the eastern city that was reached by Syrian government forces on Tuesday.
The complete liberation of al-Raqqa, Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria, could happen within the next days or weeks, he added.
As Islamic State could soon be defeated, the Syrian government and opposition rebels should now prepare to finally start real peace talks, de Mistura urged.

Thursday, September 7th 2017
Albert Otti

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