A convoy of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) came under attack in Syria today while traveling to the site of an alleged chlorine gas attack. No OPCW personnel were hurt in the incident, the group said in a statement.
Details of the incident are currently sketchy. The team set out to investigate a reported chlorine attack by Syrian government troops on the rebel-held village of Kafr Zita in Hama province last month. What happened after that is currently unclear.
Syria's state-run SANA news agency said that "terrorists" (the term it uses to describe any of President Bashar al-Assad's opponents) were responsible for the attack. According to SANA's version of events, the OPCW team was traveling unescorted towards the Kafr Zita area in four SUVs after their Syrian Army security detail stopped at the village of Taibet al-Imam and refused to travel further. Then, it said, one of the mission's cars was blown up and two more, containing six OPCW staff and five Syrian drivers, were hijacked.
An OPCW convoy was attacked in unclear circumstances in Syria today. This footage shows the team in the company of what looks to be a group of people, some armed. A man claims that the convoy was attacked by government forces who placed an IED under a vehicle to prevent the fact-finding mission from reaching its destination. Video via YouTube/National Rally for Free Hama.
In a separate dispatch, SANA also reported that members of the team had been "released" after a kidnapping. "Earlier on the day, terrorists abducted members of the mission after ambushing them near Teibat al-Imam village," it said.
A doctor in Kafr Zita told the Associated Press that residents had expected OPCW personnel to reach the village today. They had reportedly prepared documents and victims of the alleged attack to show the inspectors, but the opposition Free Syrian Army later announced that the OPCW team would no longer be coming.
Opposition activists and state media have both acknowledged that chlorine attacks took place in April, but each blamed the other.
The OPCW is in Syria to oversee the disassembling of the country's chemical weapons stockpile after the Syrian government signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in October 2013 following a chemical attack in August that killed as many as 1,400 people.
OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu called for all participants in the conflict to work with the group's staff on the ground.
"Our inspectors are in Syria to establish the facts in relation to persistent allegations of chlorine gas attacks," he said in today's statement. "Their safety is our primary concern, and it is imperative that all parties to the conflict grant them safe and secure access."
Opposition activists and state media have both acknowledged that chlorine attacks took place in April, but each blamed the other. Syrian state TV said that the rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which may have access to the chemical, was responsible.
Activists in Kafr Zita reported a chlorine attack on May 22. This footage, which shows a cloud of greenish gas at one end of a street, and people running from it, cannot be verified. Video via YouTube/General Authority of the Syrian Revolution.
The opposition, meanwhile, claim that government forces dropped barrel bombs containing chlorine on rebel-held towns.
A report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) last month concluded, based on witness interviews as well as video and picture analysis, that Assad's forces are likely to have dropped bombs containing chlorine gas on three rebel-held towns in Syria last month, including Kafr Zita.
HRW noted that fragments of chlorine canisters found at the scene indicated that they had been dropped from considerable heights, strongly suggesting that Syrian government forces dropped crude "barrel bombs" containing chlorine canisters from helicopters. Opposition groups do not have access to aircraft.
The OPCW's dismantlement program in Syria appears to be progressing ahead otherwise, albeit slower than hoped. The government missed the February 5 deadline to move its 1,300 tons of chemicals out of the country as well as a subsequent April 27 extension, although it had removed 92.5 percent of its stockpile by that point. It has promised to dispose of the remaining chemicals by June 30.
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