LONDON — A prominent human rights group said today that there were strong indications that Syrian forces had dropped barrels “embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas” via helicopters on three towns in the north of the country in mid-April.
The assertion, by Human Rights Watch, compounded the concern already stirred by reports on the use of chlorine gas by Syrian forces in the civil war, and have overshadowed the Syrian government’s pledge to rid itself of chemical weapons by the end of next month.
Unconfirmed accounts about the use of chlorine have been circulating since April when opposition activists said government helicopters dropped improvised bombs on the northern village of Kfar Zeita.
Chlorine, a common industrial chemical with many uses, was one of the original chemical weapons, first introduced by Germany during World War I. Although chlorine is not on the list of agents banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria signed last year, military use of any chemical is a violation of the treaty
In its report today, Human Rights Watch, based in New York, said “evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April 2014.”
While authorities in Damascus and insurgents seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad have accused one another of using chlorine gas, the Human Rights Watch report noted that “the Syrian government is the only party to the conflict with helicopters and other aircraft.”
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based group that is collaborating with the United Nations in overseeing the dismantling of Syria’s chemical munitions arsenal, announced a new mission to Syria last month assigned to investigate the suspected chlorine gas use.
Human Rights Watch said it based its findings on interviews with what the group described as 10 witnesses, including five medical personnel, along with video and photographs of debris suggesting “that government forces dropped barrel bombs containing embedded chlorine gas cylinders in attacks from April 11 to 21 on three towns in northwestern Syria.”
“The witnesses consistently described the clinical signs and symptoms of exposure to a choking agent, also known as a lung or pulmonary agent, by victims,” the report said. The attacks killed at least 11 people and affected nearly 500 people.
The three areas, the report said, included Kfar Zeita, northwest of Hama, on April 11 and 18; Al Temana, north of Hama, on April 13 and 18; and Telmans, southeast of the city of Idlib, on April 21.
“Seven of 10 people interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported smelling a distinct odor in the area targeted by the barrel bombs,” the report said. “They remarked that this odor was familiar and similar to that of common household cleaners.”
“Half of the people interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that the explosion of the barrel bombs produced ‘yellow smoke’ or ‘dark yellowish smoke’ in addition to the usual smoke from bomb explosions,” the report said. “Such reports of an unusual ‘yellow smoke’ at the attack site are consistent with the release of chlorine gas from the rupture of industrial compressed gas cylinders.”
Under a U.N. Security Council resolution unanimously passed last September, Syria’s government promised to purge its 1,100-ton stockpile of chemical munitions by June 30. But the government has missed interim deadlines in a timetable for exporting the munitions for destruction abroad, drawing increased concern by critics, led by the United States, who say Assad is procrastinating.
Last week the U.N. official overseeing the eradication effort, Sigrid Kaag, said the last remaining batch of chemical compounds to be exported, about 100 tons, is at an airfield outside Damascus and that the Syrian authorities had deemed the batch too dangerous to transport for now because of insurgent threats. Kaag said once the route was secured, it would take less than a week to move the chemicals to the port of Latakia, where Danish and Norwegian vessels have been waiting.
Denmark’s foreign minister, Martin Lidegaard, said today that “we cannot keep on waiting forever” for the final batch and urged the Syrians to expedite the process. Lidegaard made the remarks to Reuters Television aboard the Ark Futura, the Danish vessel.