Traces of sarin were found in samples from a north Syrian town attacked just four days before the Bashar Al Assad’s airforce dropped a bomb nearby containing the deadly nerve agent killing more than 80 people, officials said on Thursday.
Two laboratories found evidence of the nerve agent in samples retrieved from the town of Ltamenah, where some 50 people were reportedly injured during the attack, according to the chemical weapons watchdog. Nobody was believed to have been killed.
The town is just 20 kilometres from Khan Sheikhoun, which was attacked on April 4 with one of four bombs dropped by an aircraft of the Syrian air force containing sarin, UN investigators concluded last month.
Syria denied it had attacked Khan Sheikhoun with sarin and claimed that gas had been released when its jets targeted a chemical weapons factory. That version of events was ruled out by the UN team.
The finding announced Thursday by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did not attribute blame for the attack on Ltamenah. But investigators have identified a pattern of use of sarin and other banned chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
Thirty-three chemical weapons attacks have been documented in Syria, with all but six attributed to Assad forces, according to the UN team. No perpetrator was identified for the others.
The finding of the Ltamenah attack was released following a briefing by Ahmet Üzümcü, the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to member states on Tuesday. “The results prove the presence of sarin or sarin-related chemicals in most of the samples analysed,” the organisation said in a statement.
Syria joined the organisation in 2013 under threat of possible US military strikes in the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb. As part of the agreement brokered by Russia, the bulk of Syria’s supplies of sarin were removed from the country.
“For years the Assad regime has used chemical weapons to murder and terrorise innocent Syrian civilians,” said Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations.
“Unfortunately, it’s clear that the Syrian regime not only lied about the extent of their chemical weapons programmed, but that they will continue to refuse to cooperate with watchdog organisations like the OPCW.”
The furore over the use of chemical weapons comes amid some of the worst fighting in Syria since the battle for eastern Aleppo last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday.
Hundreds of thousands of people are unable to get medical help with up to 10 hospitals reportedly damaged in the past 10 days, the aid agency said in a statement.
“For the past two weeks, we have seen an increasingly worrying spike in military operations that correlates with high levels of civilian casualties,” said Marianne Gasser, head of the ICRC’s delegation in Syria.