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U.N. Probe Chief Doubtful on Syria Sarin Exposure Claims

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Cross posted from Inter Press Service


The head of the U.N. team that investigated the Aug. 21, 2013 Sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs, Ake Sellstrom, is doubtful about the number of victims of the attack reported immediately after the event.

Sellstrom has suggested that many people who claimed to have been seriously affected by Sarin merely imagined that they had suffered significant exposure to the chemical.

Underlying Sellstrom's doubts are data on symptoms from a sample of people who said they were severely affected by the Sarin attack. The data, published in the September report, appear to belie the claims of Sarin intoxication by those in the sample, according to experts who have analyzed them.

Sellstrom expressed his doubts in an interview with Gwyn Winfield, the editor of the CBRNE World Magazine, that was published in the February issue.

"If you take the figures from Tokyo, you can compare how many died versus those that were intoxicated," said Sellstrom. But in the case of Syrian attack, he said, "[W]hile we could conclude that it was big, we couldn't do the same for how many died or were affected."

He expressed doubt that many of the alleged survivors of the attack had been exposed to Sarin. "You can get many symptoms from other items in a war," Sellstrom said, "[P]hosphorous smoke, tear gas, many of those devices on the battlefield will affect the lungs, eyes and give you respiratory problems."

Then Sellstrom added, "Also in any theater of war, people will claim they are intoxicated. We saw it in Palestine, Afghanistan and everywhere else."

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Now a project manager at the European CBRNE Centre in Umea, Sellstrom did not respond to e-mail requests from IPS for comment on this article by deadline.

However, his remarks to CBRNE were evidently influenced strongly by the team's experience in gathering data on several dozen alleged victims who claimed to have been among the most heavily exposed to Sarin on Aug. 21.

Sellstrom explained to Winfield that the investigating team had sought the help of the opposition in the area where the attack took place to identify as many as 80 survivors of the Sarin attack.

"We thought that if they can gather 80 people who were affected but still surviving, that it [would be] clearly indicative that a major event had taken place," he said.

Sellstrom revealed in the interview that the team had chosen 36 people from the original 80 identified as survivors by the opposition. Those 36 people described themselves as having had very serious exposure to Sarin.

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Thirty of the 36 reported rocket strikes either on or near their homes. The remaining six said they had gone to a point of impact to help those suffering from the attack.

The U.N. report provided detailed statistics on the symptoms reported by the 36 individuals and concluded the data were "consistent with organophosphate intoxication." But chemical weapons specialists have identified serious contradictions in the data that appear to indicate the contrary.

Twenty-eight of the 36 victims -- nearly four-fifths of the sample -- said they had experienced loss of consciousness, according to the Sep. 16 U.N. report. The second most frequent symptom was difficulty breathing, which was reported by 22 of the 36, followed by blurred vision, which was suffered by 15 of them. But only five of the 36 reported miosis, or constricted pupils.

That fact is an indication that the exposure to Sarin was actually minimal or nonexistent for 31 of the 36, or 86 percent of the sample. Miosis is the most basic and reliable indicator of nerve gas poisoning, according to chemical weapons literature and specialists who analysed the report.

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Gareth Porter (born 18 June 1942, Independence, Kansas) is an American historian, investigative journalist and policy analyst on U.S. foreign and military policy. A strong opponent of U.S. wars in Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, he has also (more...)
 

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