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Syria gives Russia chemical weapons evidence

Sep. 18, 2013 - 10:04AM   |  
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MOSCOW — Syria has turned over materials to Russia which aim to show that a chemical weapons attack last month was carried out by rebels, a top Russian diplomat visiting Damascus and a Syrian official said Wednesday.

The Aug. 21 attack precipitated the current high tensions over Syria's chemical weapons and sparked a plan under which it is to abandon them. A report by U.N. investigators confirmed that chemical weapons were used Aug. 21 but did not say by which side in Syria's civil war.

The report did however provide trajectory data that suggested the chemical-loaded rockets that hit two Damascus suburbs were fired from the northwest, suggesting they came from nearby mountains where the Syrian military is known to have bases.

New York-based Human Rights Watch also said in a separate report that the presumed flight path of the rockets led back to a Republican Guard base in the same area.

"Connecting the dots provided by these numbers allows us to see for ourselves where the rockets were likely launched from and who was responsible," Josh Lyons, a satellite imagery analyst for Human Rights Watch. But, he added, the evidence was "not conclusive."

However, the ITAR-Tass news agency on Wednesday quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying that Syria told Russian officials the material it handed over shows "rebels participating in the chemical attack" but that Russia has not yet drawn any conclusions.

He also told broadcaster Russia Today that Russia has submitted to the U.N. Security Council abundant and credible evidence that suggests it was not the government that fired the chemical weapons.

"We are unhappy about this report, we think that the report was distorted, it was one-sided, the basis of information upon which it was built is insufficient," he said, referring to the U.N. report.

Also Wednesday, Syrian President Bashar Assad received a U.S. delegation of former members of Congress and anti-war activists including former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

"Policies adopted by the American administration that are based on launching wars, intervening in other countries affairs and imposing hegemony on people do not achieve the interests of American people and contradicts with their values and principals," SANA quoted Assad telling the U.S. delegation.

Elsewhere in the country, Kurdish gunmen captured the northeastern village of Alouk after four days of fighting with extremist groups including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Four Kurdish gunmen and 17 jihadis were killed in the fighting, it added.

Meanwhile Syrian troops backed by members of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group fought rebels in the town of Beit Sahem, just south of the capital and near the highway leading to Damascus International Airport, the Observatory said.

Russia has been Syria's main ally since the start of the conflict in March 2011, blocking proposed U.N. resolutions that would impose sanctions on Assad's regime and opposing an attempt to authorize the use of force if Syria does not abide by the agreement to get rid of its chemical weapons.

Assigning responsibility for last month's attack has become a heated international diplomatic issue. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his French counterpart Laurent Fabius sharply differed on the topic after meeting in Moscow on Tuesday. Lavrov said Moscow has reason to believe the attack was a provocation staged by the rebels, while Fabius said the evidence clearly implicates the government side.

Russia also has repeatedly claimed that a chemical weapons attack in Syria on March 19 was committed by the rebels.

The reports did not specify the nature of the new material turned over by Syria to Russia, which Ryabkov said would be closely analyzed.

"But considering that earlier we came to the corresponding conclusion about the incident of March 19, we are inclined to treat with great seriousness the material from the Syrian side about the involvement of the rebels in the chemical attack of Aug. 21," Ryabkov said, according to ITAR-Tass.

Also Wednesday, the chief U.N. chemical weapons inspector said his team will return to Syria "within weeks" to complete the investigation it had started before the Aug 21 gas attack and other alleged chemical weapons attacks in the country.

Ake Sellstrom told The Associated Press the team will evaluate "allegations of chemical weapons use from both sides, but perhaps mainly from the Syrian government's side."

He said he doesn't currently think there is a need for more investigations of the Aug. 21 attacks, but said "if we receive any additional information it will be included next time we report."

In London, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the recent American-Russian agreement on eliminating chemical weapons in Syria, saying he thinks the "credible threat" of military action was the real reason "why diplomacy got a chance."

He said that in order to ensure implementation of that agreement, it is crucial for the United Nations Security Council to "expeditiously adopt" a firm resolution to act as a framework for the process.

"In order to keep momentum in the diplomatic and political process the military option should still be on the table," he added.

The fighting in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people, according to activists and the U.N., and has forced 7 million to flee their homes. Five million Syrians have been displaced inside the country and more than 2 million have sought refuge in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, according to the U.N.

____

Heintz reported from Moscow.

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