UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Monday for U.N. experts to have “full access” to the sites of alleged chemical weapons in Syria.
He said that access must include interviews and examination of witnesses, victims and medical personnel and the conduct of post-mortem examinations.
After months of negotiations, a 20-member U.N. team led by Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom arrived in Damascus on Sunday to investigate three sites where chemical weapons attacks allegedly occurred: the village of Khan al-Assal just west of the embattled northern city of Aleppo and two other locations being kept secret for security reasons.
Diplomats and chemical weapons experts have raised doubts about whether the experts will find anything since the alleged incidents took place months ago.
The mandate for the investigation is also limited: The team will report on whether chemical weapons were used, and if so which ones, but it will not determine the responsibility for an attack. This has led some commentators to question the value of the investigation.
Ban said if the U.N. team reports that chemical weapons were used, it is up to the international community “to determine what course of action should be taken to prove this, first of all, (determine) accountability, and what needs to be done.”
The secretary-general reiterated that “if confirmed, the use of chemical weapons by any side under any circumstances must be held accountable and would constitute an international crime.”
He told reporters the serious security situation in Syria “will undoubtedly affect the mission’s activities in Syria” and stressed that the government and others must ensure their safety. He expressed appreciation for the assurances he has received on their safety and security.
At the same time, Ban reiterated that “in order to credibly establish the facts, the mission must have full access to the sites of the alleged incidents … to undertake the necessary analyses and to collect samples.”
Syria is said to have one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin, though it has never admitted possessing such weapons.
Ban stressed the ground-breaking and historic nature of the investigation.
“This is the first probe of allegations of the use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century,” Ban said. “I firmly believe that an effective mechanism to investigate allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons will help deter their future use.”
The Syrian government initially asked the U.N. to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack on March 19 in Khan al Assal, which was captured by the rebels last month. The government and rebels blame each other for the purported attack which killed at least 30 people.
Britain, France and the U.S. followed with allegations of chemical weapons use in Homs, Damascus and elsewhere. U.N. Mideast envoy Robert Serry told the Security Council last month that the U.N. has received 13 reports of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria.