PARIS — France announced Tuesday that laboratory tests had confirmed that sarin nerve gas had been used “multiple times” in Syria but only “in a localized way.” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that in one case, at least, “there is no doubt it was the regime and its accomplices” that used the gas.
In a statement, Fabius said samples of body fluids taken from victims in Syria and tested at a French laboratory — including urine samples carried out of Syria by French reporters — “prove the presence of sarin,” a poisonous nerve gas.
“It would be unacceptable that those guilty of these crimes can benefit from impunity,” Fabius said, without specifying of whom he spoke. But sarin is in the Syrian government’s stock of chemical weapons, and he later told France 2 television that blood samples from victims of a helicopter attack in April in Idlib Province left no doubt that it was the government that had used sarin.
“We are aware of the entire chain, from when the attack took place to when the people were killed and the samples taken,” he said.
Fabius handed France’s evidence to Ake Sellstrom, the chief of the mission of inquiry appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The French announcement offered the clearest evidence so far that sarin had been used in the Syria conflict, which has lasted more than two years and left more than 80,000 people dead. Israeli officials have cited but not revealed evidence that the government of President Bashar Assad has repeatedly used chemical weapons, and the White House has said that US intelligence agencies have determined with varying degrees of confidence that it used sarin on a small scale.
UN investigators in Geneva on Tuesday also reported the likely use of chemical weapons in Syria, in a report focusing on “new levels of brutality.”
The report cited for the first time the government’s use of thermobaric bombs, which scatter a cloud of explosive particles before detonating, sending a devastating blast of pressure and extreme heat that incinerates those caught in the blast and sucks the oxygen from the lungs of people in the vicinity. It said the bombs were used in March in the fierce struggle for the town of Qusair.
“Syria is in free fall,” Paulo Pinheiro, the head of a commission of inquiry on the hostilities in Syria, told the UN Human Rights Council. “Crimes that shock the conscience have become a daily reality.”
His four-member panel reported 17 cases that could be called massacres between mid-January and mid-May and urged world powers to cut off supplies of weapons that could result only in more civilian casualties.
The panel’s report drew swift criticism from both sides. Syria’s ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, accused Pinheiro’s panel of “excessively exaggerating its conclusions” and of lacking neutrality.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces said in a statement that there could be “no comparison between those who systematically drop fatal explosives, killing innocent women and children to suppress a popular revolution, and those who bear light and medium arms to defend unarmed civilians.”
The UN investigators’ report provided a stark challenge for senior Russian and US officials who are to meet in Geneva on Wednesday to discuss how to bring all the parties together for peace talks.
The panel cited growing use of cluster munitions, barrel bombs, and surface-to-surface missiles as evidence of the government’s “flagrant disregard” for the distinction between combatants and civilians demanded by international law.
Both sides have adopted siege tactics, trapping civilians in their homes and cutting off supplies of food, water, medicine and electricity, the report stated, in clear breach of international law. The panel also reported that forces of both sides had used or threatened attacks to drive civilians out of particular areas, which would also constitute a war crime.
The panel’s report said there were “reasonable grounds to believe limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used” in Aleppo and Damascus on March 19, in Aleppo on April 13, and in Idlib on April 29. Pinheiro said the conclusions were based on interviews with victims of attacks, refugees from Syria and some medical personnel.