(CNSNews.com) – For the first time, a United Nations report has assigned blame for a deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria’s Idlib province last April, pointing a finger at the Assad regime and discounting Syrian and Russian claims that the attack was fabricated or the work of anti-Assad rebels.
The regime in Damascus gave no immediate response to the report released in Geneva on Wednesday, although a Russian government official dismissed it as “amateurish.”
“All evidence available leads the commission to conclude that there are reasonable grounds to believe Syrian forces dropped an aerial bomb dispersing sarin in Khan Sheikhun,” a U.N.-appointed independent commission investigating the Syrian conflict said in the report.
The U.N. investigators also said they have documented a total of 25 chemical weapons attacks in Syria between March 2013 and March this year, “of which 20 were perpetrated by government forces and used primarily against civilians.”
In the Khan Sheikhun incident, the panel found that at least 83 people, including 28 children and 23 women, were killed, and nearly 300 more were wounded.
It attributed the early morning April 4 attack to a Syrian air force Sukhoi Su-22 warplane which it said dropped one chemical bomb and three others that were likely OFAB-100-120s, fragmentation high-explosive bombs known to be used by the regime forces.
It cited eyewitnesses as describing one of the four bombs as having “made less noise and produced less smoke than the others.”
“Photographs of weapon remnants depict a chemical aerial bomb of a type manufactured in the former Soviet Union.”
The commission said information gathered from victims, eyewitnesses and medical personnel pointed to the use of sarin, a deadly nerve gas.
(An earlier Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons fact-finding mission also found sarin or a “sarin-like” substance had been used in the April 4 attack, although it did not attribute blame.)
“None of the victims had wounds or visible injuries, and all experienced a combination of the following symptoms: foaming from the mouth and nose, contracted pupils, respiratory difficulties, coughing, blue lips, pale or yellow skin, loss of consciousness, dizziness, convulsions, vomiting, paralysis, and diminished heartbeat,” the report said.
The panel stated that the chemical attack constituted a war crime.
Furthermore, it reported an airstrike several hours later on a nearby medical facility that was the only one dealing with the victims of the gas attack.
There were reasonable grounds to believe that second strike had been carried out either by the regime or by its Russian allies, “[b]ased on the fact that the medical point was struck with cluster incendiary munition, which only Syrian and Russian air forces use.”
The panel said that the attack on the medical facility also constituted war crimes.
“By bombing the al-Rahma medical point, which also destroyed ambulances, Syrian and/or Russian forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking protected objects, and intentionally attacking medical personnel and transport,” its report said.
The Khan Sheikhun attack prompted President Trump to order a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase which U.S. agencies linked to the episode, after declaring that the use of illicit substances to kill innocents “crosses many, many lines.”
But the regime denied responsibility for the toxic gas attack, as did Russia.
Both governments claimed instead that the gas had been released after a rebel chemical weapons facility was bombed, or alternatively, that the release of poisonous gas was a “false-flag” operation designed to attract or to justify U.S. military intervention.
On Wednesday, a senior Russian foreign ministry official was quoted by the Interfax news agency as calling the U.N. commission report “amateurish” and “propagandistic.”
Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the ministry’s non-proliferation and weapons control department, said the report authors had ignored the “probability” that the incident had been staged.
Ulyanov also pointed out that the commission had not visited Khan Sheikhun, and said that its claims were based on so-called eyewitnesses and the Internet.
(The panel says it requested in writing information from the regime but received no response. It conducted 43 interviews with eyewitnesses, victims, first-responders, medical workers, and people who visited the site after the attack. It had also “collected satellite imagery, photographs of bomb remnants, early warning reports, videos of the area allegedly impacted by the airstrikes, and reviewed photographs and videos of victims depicting symptoms.”)
Although the commission reported on at least 20 chemical attacks blamed on the regime since 2013 it said the Khan Sheikhun one was the first using sarin since an August 2013 attack in Ghouta near Damascus, which killed around 1,000 people.
That attack led to threats of airstrikes by President Obama – who a year earlier had declared the use of chemical weapons in Syria a “red line” – but he backed away from punishing the regime after Russia brokered a deal under which President Bashar al-Assad pledged to declare and surrender for destruction his chemical weapons stockpile.
The OPCW later confirmed that all “declared” chemical weapons had been handed over and destroyed.
Although the certification only applied to the stocks Assad had declared, Moscow has since then contended that the regime could not possibly be guilty of using chemical weapons since it no longer possesses them.