UN inspectors reach victims of chemical weapons attack

Agence France-Presse
Toxicology and weapons specialists say a gas like sarin or VX – a paralyzing gas – is still traceable in the victims' bodies for up to 6 weeks

An image grab taken from a video uploaded on YouTube on August 26, 2013 allegedly shows a UN inspector (C) listening to the testimony of a man in the Damascus subburb of Moadamiyet al-Sham. AFP PHOTO / YOUTUBE

BEIRUT, Lebanon – United Nations inspectors Monday, August 26, reached a site near Syria’s capital of a suspected chemical weapons attack to launch an investigation, meeting doctors and casualties, online videos showed and an activist said.

“The inspectors managed to enter the town of Moadamiyet al-Sham with civilians, and visited the Red Crescent centre where they met doctors,” Abu Nadim, an activist in Damascus province, told Agence France-Presse via Skype.

Abu Nadim said the inspectors were wearing helmets and bullet-proof jackets and were accompanied by their own security detail, who carried walkie-talkies.

In videos posted online, with faint sound quality, the inspectors appeared in a makeshift hospital, wearing blue helmets and speaking English. A doctor translates for an inspector as a man speaks, next to someone in a surgical mask.

The inspectors can also be seen with a nurse near the bed where a man is lying. One inspector takes notes as the rest of the group looks on.

On Sunday – 4 days after the alleged attacks in which opposition groups say regime forces killed hundreds of civilians with chemical agents – Damascus gave the green light for a group of UN experts to visit the areas of Eastern Ghouta and Moadamiyet al-Sham on the outskirts of Damascus to investigate.

The UN mission is aimed at determining if a chemical weapons attack actually took place, but will not investigate who was responsible for any attack. Syria has rejected responsibility, in turn accusing the rebels of using chemical arms.

Snipers shoot at UN probers

Before this, snipers shot at the UN specialists Monday.

After briefly pulling back, the investigators went to a field hospital where victims of the attack were treated, UN officials said.

The lead vehicle in a convoy was hit “multiple times” by gunfire as the inspectors tried to reach Ghouta, east of the Syrian capital, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

No injuries were reported, but the team had to head back toward their base, Nesirky said.

“The first vehicle of the chemical weapons investigation team was deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified snipers in the buffer zone area,” he said.

“As the car was no longer serviceable, the team returned safely back to the government checkpoint,” he added.

The UN spokesman gave no other details on the venue of the sniper attack or from where the shooting came from.

Nerve agent still traceable

Meanwhile, in Paris, experts said UN inspectors should be able to easily detect traces of nerve agent in the victims, as this would remain in victims for weeks.

Toxicology and weapons specialists said a gas like sarin or VX would still be traceable in hair and tissue from human corpses and animal carcasses, the blood of survivors, and the site where the shells carrying the supposed nerve agent exploded.

Syria’s opposition claims more than 1,300 people died from the Wednesday attack, and Doctors Without Borders said 355 people died of “neurotoxic” symptoms.

“We are still within the time zone where if there was a sarin attack, for example, we should be able to acquire blood samples that then can be analysed in a laboratory outside of Syria, and where we would know for a fact afterwards whether sarin was involved,” said disarmament consultant Ralf Trapp, formerly a scientist at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

US officials have expressed fears that evidence of the attack may already have been destroyed by continuing shelling of the area.

Footage distributed by activists last week appeared to show people foaming at the mouth while doctors give people oxygen to help them breathe and try to resuscitate unconscious children.

Alastair Hay, a toxicology professor at Leeds University in England and a former chemical weapons inspector, said the symptoms “point to a potent chemical warfare nerve agent like sarin,” whose victims could carry traces in their blood for up to 6 weeks.

Paralyzing gas

Sarin is an odorless, paralyzing gas developed by Nazi scientists and used by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime to kill thousands of Kurds in 1988.

It kills by asphyxiation, and is widely believed to form part of Syria’s military arsenal.

To test for sarin or a similar nerve agent, the UN inspectors should be allowed to interview, examine and take samples from survivors, given access to their medical and laboratory files as well as the doctors who treated them, said the experts.

French toxicology and forensic expert Pascal Kintz said there should be no technical hurdle to obtaining proof of nerve gas poisoning.

“If the UN inspectors get the correct samples, from blood, urine and fatty tissue where these things settle, and also from the victims’ clothes, there would be no problem doing this type of analysis – even with a long delay,” he said.

The inspectors should also be allowed to comb the site of the explosion – interview witnesses, take samples from the soil and from carcasses on the scene, as well as from the munition itself.

“You try to find the actual weapons, the remnants of weapons. You can do a visual inspection, an investigation of the weapon, that will allow a design specialist to decide whether this could have been a chemical weapon or whether it was something else,” said Trapp. – Rappler.com


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