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Weapons watchdog finds sarin used in deadly attack in Syria

Associated Press logo Associated Press 30/06/2017 By MIKE CORDER, Associated Press
FILE - In this April 4, 2017 file photo, victims of a suspected chemical weapons attack lie on the ground, in Khan Sheikhoun, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria. Syria’s government and its ally Russia accused Washington, Thursday, June 29, 2017, of concocting a “provocation” in Syria, which would then be blamed on President Bashar Assad’s government as alleged use of chemical weapons to justify an attack. In a statement carried by the official news agency, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said it rejects U.S. allegations that Syria was preparing for a chemical weapons attack, describing such accusations as “misleading” and “completely baseless.” (Alaa Alyousef via AP, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this April 4, 2017 file photo, victims of a suspected chemical weapons attack lie on the ground, in Khan Sheikhoun, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria. Syria’s government and its ally Russia accused Washington, Thursday, June 29, 2017, of concocting a “provocation” in Syria, which would then be blamed on President Bashar Assad’s government as alleged use of chemical weapons to justify an attack. In a statement carried by the official news agency, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said it rejects U.S. allegations that Syria was preparing for a chemical weapons attack, describing such accusations as “misleading” and “completely baseless.” (Alaa Alyousef via AP, File)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — An investigation by the international chemical weapons watchdog confirmed that sarin nerve gas was used in a deadly April 4 attack on a Syrian town, but a report released Friday stopped short of saying who was responsible.

The attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Syria's Idlib province killed more than 90 people, including women and children. It sparked outrage around the world as photos and video of the aftermath, including quivering children dying on camera, were widely broadcast.

"I strongly condemn this atrocity, which wholly contradicts the norms enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said in a statement. "The perpetrators of this horrific attack must be held accountable for their crimes."

The U.S. blamed the Syrian military for the attack and launched a punitive strike days later. Syrian President Bashar Assad has denied using chemical weapons.

A Syrian lawmaker questioned the results and described the report as part of a campaign of "political exploitation" against his country.

The findings of the investigation released Friday will be used by a joint U.N.-OPCW investigation team working to assess who was responsible for the attack. The team is expected to issue its next report around October. The OPCW has scheduled a July 5 meeting of its executive council to discuss the matter.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement Thursday night, after the report was circulated to OPCW members, that "the facts reflect a despicable and highly dangerous record of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime." Only some details of the report were released to the public.

Assad's staunch ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, said earlier this month that he believed the attack was "a provocation" staged "by people who wanted to blame" Assad.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the report doesn't back claims by the U.S. and its allies that the sarin was dropped from aircraft.

"They don't know how the sarin ended up there, yet tensions have been escalating for all these months," Lavrov said in Moscow.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that while the report did not apportion blame, "the U.K.'s own assessment is that the Assad regime almost certainly carried out this abominable attack."

Both the U.S. and the OPCW defended the probe's methodology. Investigators did not visit the scene of the attack, deeming it too dangerous, but analyzed samples from victims and survivors as well as interviewing witnesses.

Mohammad Kheir Akkam, a member of Syria's parliament, said that the lack of on-site investigations undermined the findings.

"We should ask how did they get to these results," Akkam said. "Let us ask those who carried out this investigation. How did they reach those results without taking samples from the same area?"

He said the timing of the report "points to political exploitation," adding that it appeared linked to the U.S. warnings this week that the Syrian government is preparing to use chemical weapons.

Syria joined the OPCW in 2013 after it was blamed for a deadly poison gas attack in a Damascus suburb. As it joined, Assad's government declared some 1,300 tons of chemical weapons and precursor chemicals that were subsequently destroyed in an unprecedented international operation.

However, the organization still has unanswered questions about the completeness of Syria's initial declaration, meaning that it has never conclusively been able to confirm that the country has no more chemical weapons.

The investigative team responsible for the report has previously concluded "with a high degree of confidence" that chlorine and sulfur mustard, commonly known as mustard gas, had been used as weapons in Syria.

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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

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