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Saturday May 26th, 2018 11:19PM

Watchdog: Chlorine used in Syrian town of Saraqeb

By The Associated Press

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The international chemical weapons watchdog said Wednesday that chlorine was likely used as a weapon in the rebel-held northern Syrian town of Saraqeb in early February, the latest report of poison gas being unleashed in Syria's civil war.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons released details of a report into the chlorine use, but did not say which side in the fighting used it. The OPCW is not mandated to apportion blame for the attack.

The probe into the use of chlorine gas in the Saraqeb attack comes amid the OPCW's investigation into another attack two months later in Douma, near the capital Damascus — a much larger attack in April that triggered U.S., British and French strikes against government posts in Syria a week later.

The OPCW said that its Fact-Finding Mission probing alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria "determined that chlorine was released from cylinders by mechanical impact in the Al Talil neighbourhood of Saraqeb."

On Feb. 4, the White Helmets search-and-rescue group and a medical charity reported that several people suffered breathing difficulties after a suspected chlorine gas attack on Saraqeb, days after the Trump administration accused President Bashar Assad's government of producing and using "new kinds of weapons" to deliver poisonous gases. Damascus denied the White House's charges.

At the time, the White Helmets said three of its rescuers and six other people suffered breathing problems. The Syrian American Medical Society said its hospitals in Idlib treated 11 patients for suspected chlorine gas poisoning.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu harshly criticized the chemical attack.

"I strongly condemn the continued use of toxic chemicals as weapons by anyone, for any reason, and in any circumstances," Uzumcu said in a statement. "Such acts contradict the unequivocal prohibition against chemical weapons enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention."

The OPCW said its team based its findings on evidence including "the presence of two cylinders, which were determined as previously containing chlorine; witness testimony; environmental samples that demonstrated the unusual presence of chlorine in the local environment; and the number of patients at medical facilities shortly after the incident who showed signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine and other toxic chemicals."

Saraqeb is in the northern Idlib province, a stronghold for rebels and opposition to Assad's government. The province is also home to al-Qaida-linked militants. The town has before come under suspected chemical attacks, including in 2016 and in 2013.

The mission also is investigating allegations that poison gas was used in Douma, near the capital Damascus, in a deadly April 7 attack. That attack led to the U.S., France and Britain blaming the Syrian government and launching joint punitive airstrikes targeting suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities on April 14. The organization has not yet issued a report on that attack.

Assad's forces have repeatedly been accused of using chemical weapons in the civil war. His regime denies the allegations. Rebels also have been accused of using poison gas.

___

Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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