OPCW refuses to confirm nature of besieged Syria weapons depot

The UN chemical weapons watchdog would not say if the bunker, reported to contain sarin, was on a list submitted by Damascus that locates its chemical weapons stocks.

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Foreign correspondent

BEIRUT // The UN’s chemical weapons watchdog yesterday refused to reveal if a secret government military facility at the centre of a tense standoff in southern Syria last week was a possible chemical weapons site.

As part of a deal to decommission its chemical weapons programme, one of the largest in the world, Syria was required to provide the UN with a comprehensive list of its chemical weapons stocks, production and delivery systems.

Under the terms of that agreement there have not been searches by weapons inspectors to ensure the declaration was complete. Instead, it depends on the Syrian authorities giving an honest accounting of the extensive programme, whose existence they had denied until September last year.

Syria’s stockpile declaration was shared with members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), including the US, Europe and regional states but it can only be made public by Damascus, something the authorities have not done.

“All declarations to the OPCW are confidential and details thereof can only be publicly disclosed with the consent of the State Party,” said Michael Luhan, the OPCW’s spokesman, said about Tal Al Jabiyeh, a military facility near Deraa and the Israel border.

Last Tuesday, a reinforced bunker on Tal Al Jabiyeh was the focal point of a flurry of activity in the secret international operations command centre in Amman, with military and intelligence officials there warning advancing rebels they must not touch any weapons inside.

Israeli jets were on standby to destroy the bunker and the entire military complex if rebels entered it, according to sources familiar with the incident.

They described an eleventh-hour panic in the international command centre over what it called “strategic weapons” on Tal Al Jabiyeh. Rebels in the area say a defector who served with the Syrian military there handed over intelligence that sarin, a deadly nerve agent that has already been used in the Syria war, was hidden in the bunker, a claim that cannot be independently confirmed.

Efforts to remove all of Syria’s chemicals weapons have fallen behind a tight timetable laid out by the OPCW-UN joint mission.

On Wednesday however, Sigrid Kaag, the special representative heading the mission, said the Syrian authorities had recently accelerated their work to remove and destroy 1,300 metric tones of chemicals.

After missing two deadlines, Damascus submitted a revised timeline for the decommissioning of its declared weapons programme by the end of April.

“The month of March, as I informed the Security Council, is the critical month to look at continued progress toward the overall deadline,” Ms Kaag said.

Also on Wednesday, a UN human rights investigation team said it had found strong evidence that nerve agents, used in chemical weapons attacks in Damascus suburbs and two other locations last year, came from regime supplies.

“The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on August 21 indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents,” the UN investigators, led by Paulo Pinheiro, said in the report.

The Syrian regime has maintained chemical weapons remained safely under its control and have not fallen into rebel hands.

It denies carrying out a complex nerve gas attack that killed hundreds of people in suburbs of Damascus in August.

A UN special inspection into that incident was not mandated to apportion blame but the evidence it compiled strongly indicated regime forces were responsible.