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Team to report on perpetrators of Syrian chemical attacks

The investigation team in charge of identifying perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria will produce its first report "in the next few months," the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has said.

Fernando Arias gave the update to reporters on Tuesday after a private meeting with the UN Security Council when asked about the lack of accountability and justice for victims of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

The OPCW voted to apportion blame for poison gas and nerve agent attacks last year after Russia used its Security Council veto to terminate a joint UN-OPCW investigative body set up in 2015 to determine responsibility for chemical attacks.

Russia, a close ally of Syria, claimed the UN-OPCW team was not professional or objective in its investigations.

The OPCW was created to implement a 1997 treaty that banned chemical weapons, but had lacked a mandate to name the parties it found responsible for using them.

Britain led the successful campaign in June 2018 to give the 193-nation chemical weapons watchdog new teeth, over Russian objections.

Before its mandate was terminated, the UN-OPCW team had accused Syria of using chlorine gas in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015 and the nerve agent sarin in an aerial attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 that killed some 100 people and affected about 200 others. That attack led to a US airstrike on a Syrian airfield.

The team also accused the Islamic State extremist group of using mustard gas twice in 2015 and 2016.

Arias, the OPCW director-general, said the organisation's identification investigation team is in charge of naming perpetrators, "and in the next few months we are going to be in a position to produce the first report." The Security Council ordered Syria to join the chemical weapons convention and account for and destroy its chemical weapons stockpile in September 2013 following a surprise agreement between Washington and Moscow that averted U.S. strikes.

The agreement followed a chemical attack in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus the previous month that killed hundreds of people. The US and others blamed the Syrian government forces for the attack, and then US president Barack Obama had threatened punitive strikes.

Arias told reporters Tuesday that "despite the successful destruction of more than 1,300 tons of Syria's chemical weapons by the OPCW, the UN and more than 30 countries, two main issues require firm and continued commitment of the international community in Syria."

The first is "to verify that Syria has fully declared its entire chemical weapons stockpiles, and secondly to investigate allegations of the use of toxic chemicals as weapons in Syria since 2013," he said.

Arias said the OPCW's team that assessed Syria's declaration of its chemical stockpile and facilities has had 22 rounds of consultations with Syrian officials, "and there has been a lot of clarifications but there are still outstanding issues." "We are assisting Syria to clarify the gaps in the initial declaration," he said.

Is the OPCW close to a final answer?

"We will discover more things," Arias replied without elaborating.