NEW: Russia slams report as politically motivated and based on "doubtful data"
Assad "almost certainly" launched "abominable attack," UK diplomat says
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) launched an investigation after the April 4 airstrike on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, where horrifying images and videos emerged showing civilians – including children – struggling to breathe with foam coming from their mouths.
The attack, in which 89 people died, was one of the deadliest in Syria in recent years and prompted the US military to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase. The OPCW report comes the same week the White House issued a public warning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would pay a “heavy price” for using chemical weapons.
“The OPCW fact-finding mission has confirmed the use of sarin, a nerve agent, at the 4 April incident in Khan Sheikhoun in Syria. I strongly condemn this atrocity, which wholly contradicts the norms enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention,” the OPCW’s director-general, Ahmet Uzumcu, said in a statement about its report, which has not yet been made public.
“The perpetrators of this horrific attack must be held accountable for their crimes. In this context, the work of the Joint Investigative Mechanism assumes high importance,” he said.
The OPCW, which was unable to reach the town because of security concerns, attended autopsies, collected biomedical samples, interviewed witnesses and used environmental samples in its fact-finding process. It’s not part of the OPCW’s mandate to investigate who is responsible for the attack.
Russia scoffs at nerve gas finding
In response to the OPCW findings, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the UK stands behind its belief that the Assad regime is responsible for the attack.
“This confirmation cannot be ignored. The UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism will now work to identify who was responsible. As I have said previously, the UK’s own assessment is that the Assad regime almost certainly carried out this abominable attack,” he said.
“I urge our international partners to unite behind the need to hold those responsible for this atrocity to account.”
But Russia – Syria’s most powerful ally in the six-year conflict – described the OPCW report as politically motivated and grounded in “doubtful data obtained from opposition” and “notorious NGOs like the White Helmets.”
Moscow also criticized the watchdog’s methodology for gathering samples and eyewitness statements in a “neighboring country” and “not at the site of the tragedy.”
“Therefore, it is not surprising that the content of the report of the OPCW special commission is largely biased, which suggests the presence of a political put-up job in this organization,” the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Russia said it will study the report at the “expert level in the most careful way” and give its assessment during a special session of the OPCW Executive Council in July and during the UN Security council meeting.
Syria rejects blame for attack
The Khan Sheikhoun incident has been widely blamed on the Syrian government, though Damascus has continually denied it had anything to do with the attack and also denies it has any chemical weapons, instead blaming terrorist groups for the deadly assault.
Stockpiles of sarin may well exist in Syria, despite the OPCW overseeing the destruction of the country’s chemical weapon supply in 2013, following an attack in the Ghouta area of Damascus. Activists said that attack killed 1,400 people.
A joint UN-OPCW investigation will now move forward to identify who was behind the attack. British scientists had previously found evidence of sarin or a sarin-like substance in samples from the April 4 airstrike.
CNN’s Lindsay Isaac in London and Mary Ilyushina in Moscow contributed to this report.