By Anthony Deutsch and Peter Apps ,Reuters
AMSTERDAM/LONDON — The longer chemical weapons inspectors wait in a Damascus luxury hotel for permission to drive up the road to the site of what appears to be the worst poison gas attack in a quarter century, the less likely they will be able to get to the bottom of it. The poisoning deaths of many hundreds of people took place only three days after a team of U.N. chemical weapons experts arrived in Syria. But their limited mandate means the inspectors have so far been powerless to go to the scene, a short drive from where they are staying.
“We’re being exterminated with poison gas while they drink their coffee and sit inside their hotels,” said Bara Abdelrahman, an activist in one of the Damascus suburbs where rebels say government rockets brought the poison gas that killed hundreds of people before dawn on Wednesday. The Syrian government denies it was behind the mass killing, the deadliest incident of any kind in Syria’s two-and-a-half year civil war and the worst apparent chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988. The United Nations has asked President Bashar al-Assad’s government for access to the scene, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it should be investigated “without delay.” Former weapons investigators say every hour matters. “The longer it takes, the easier it is for anybody who has used it to try to cover up,” said Demetrius Perricos, who headed the U.N.’s team of weapons inspectors in Iraq in the 2000s. “The more you cover up, the more time it takes afterwards to uncover it. So time is definitely not something that you want to take, you don’t want to do it slowly,” Perricos told Reuters. “Staggeringly effective” Chemical weapons experts say there is little doubt that it was exposure to poison gas of some kind that killed the hundreds of victims, although exactly what chemicals were used could not be determined from just looking at images. “Clearly, something has killed a lot of people,” said Dan Kaszeta, a former U.S. Army chemical officer and Department of Homeland Security expert and now a private consultant. “We’re not going to know what until someone gets a sample.” Stephen Johnson, a former British Army officer specializing in chemical, biological and nuclear warfare and now visiting fellow at Cranfield University’s forensic unit, said it was also “staggeringly effective if it is a chemical attack, which implies more than a casual rocket or two.” Keeping U.N. inspectors from reaching the site would not stop Western countries from obtaining their own evidence and drawing their own conclusions, as in previous cases when they determined Assad’s forces used smaller amounts of sarin gas. In the past, France, Britain and the United States obtained samples of soil and human tissue and other evidence they said proved Assad’s government was to blame.