* Syria due to hand over all chemicals by Sunday
* Investigation backed by British, Germans and French,
* British official seeks inquiry into "concerning" chlorine
(Adds comment from French foreign minister)
By Anthony Deutsch
AMSTERDAM, April 24 The head of the global
chemical weapons watchdog overseeing the destruction of Syria's
toxic stockpile is considering launching a fact-finding mission
on his own initiative to investigate reports of chlorine gas
attacks there, sources said.
Syria became a member of the Organisation for the
Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) last year as part of a
deal with Russia and the United States to destroy its chemical
OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu has the authority to launch an
investigation into alleged use of chemical weapons in member
states, including Syria, without the need to seek a formal
request from a member state, sources told Reuters on Thursday.
"The OPCW director general is considering, on his own
initiative, sending a fact-finding mission," one source said.
"A number of questions are still to be answered: Syrian
consent, mandate of the mission, participants from other
organisations, such as the World Health Organization," the
OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan declined to comment.
Several of Washington's key European allies, including
Germany and France, support an investigation into the latest
claims of chlorine gas use, the sources said.
"The indications of the use of chlorine on 11-13 April in
Hama province are particularly concerning," a British official
said on Thursday.
"We think there needs to be an investigation of recent
reports of the use of chemical weapons including chlorine, and
we are working with others in the international community to
establish how that should be done."
Syria has vowed to hand over or destroy its entire arsenal
by the end of this week. It still has roughly 7.5 percent of the
chemicals it declared to the OPCW and has not yet destroyed all
of a dozen production and storage facilities.
Cooperation from Syria and other international organisations
would need to be arranged to provide security because of the
country's ongoing civil war, which has left 130,000 dead and
forced millions more from their homes.
"WHAT ARE WE GOOD FOR?"
Washington and its Western allies have blamed President
Bashar al-Assad's forces for using sarin gas in an attack in
August that killed hundreds of people in the outskirts of
Damascus. Assad has blamed the rebels.
A U.N.-led inquiry found that chemical weapons were likely
used in five attacks in 2013, although it did not apportion
blame. The nerve agent sarin was probably used in four of the
five attacks, it found.
Chlorine, which was first used as a weapon in World War I,
is believed to have been used in attacks in several areas of
Syria this month.
All the attacks shared the same characteristics, leading
analysts to believe they are part of a coordinated campaign, in
which barrels of the toxic chemical have been dropped from
Rebels have posted photos and video footage they claim show
the latest attacks are also the work of forces under Assad.
"The convention forbids the use of toxic chemicals in
warfare," another source at the OPCW said. "If we close our eyes
to any alleged use, we should be asking ourselves: what are we
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius backed calls for an
"We are gathering precise elements, and if we find them then
clearly several steps will have to be taken at the United
Nations and the OPCW," he told reporters.
"The use of such chemicals would be criminal and contrary to
all commitments of countries concerned."
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad said the
charges against Syrian government forces were intended "to
overshadow the achievements made by Syria" in ending its
chemical weapons programme.
As part of the agreement that averted U.S. military strikes
last year, Damascus has until June 30 to destroy all chemical
weapons, and their production and storage facilities.
Meqdad "refuted as baseless the allegation made by the U.S.,
France and Israel on using toxic materials by the Syrian Arab
Army in any of the Syrian territories", a statement said.
Syria's remaining stockpile of declared chemical weapons are
in more than a dozen lorry containers, in a location near
Damascus that the government has said was unreachable due to
The OPCW enforces adherence to the Chemical Weapons
Convention, which requires members to declare all chemical
stocks to the organisation, which won the Nobel Peace prize last
On Thursday, the joint U.N.-OPCW mission to Syria said the
total of chemical material removed and destroyed in country had
reached 92.5 percent of the 1,300 metric tonnes Damascus
"I welcome the significant progress of the last three weeks,
and I strongly encourage the Syrian authorities to conclude the
removal operations as part of their efforts to achieve the 30
June, 2014, deadline," mission chief Sigrid Kaag said.
Syria has not declared either the sarin, munitions used in
last year's attack, or chlorine, officials said. If it had them,
they should be reported to the OPCW.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday
that Washington had indications that chlorine was probably used
by government forces in Syria and said an investigation was
Even if Syria meets the June 30 deadline and abandons its
decades-old chemical weapons programme, the OPCW's work there
will not be finished, one diplomat said.
"If anyone pats themselves on the back and says this is
over, they will be fooling themselves."
(Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan in London and John
Irish in Paris. Editing by Will Waterman)