Israel says Assad’s forces still have several tonnes of chemical weapons

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  • As Qatari jet sits on tarmac in Baghdad as royal hostages await release

Israel`s military said on Wednesday it believes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad`s forces still possess several tonnes of chemical weapons, issuing the assessment two weeks after a chemical attack that killed nearly 90 people in Syria.

Israel, along with many countries, blames the strike on Assad`s military. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said French intelligence services would provide proof of that in the coming days.

A senior Israeli military officer, in a briefing to Israeli reporters, said “a few tonnes of chemical weapons” remained in the hands of Assad`s forces, a military spokesman told Reuters.

Some local media reports quoted the briefing officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with Israeli military procedure, as putting the amount at up to 3 tonnes.

In a 2013 agreement brokered by Russia and the United States, Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons.

Earlier in the day, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons, a global watchdog, said sarin or a similar banned toxin was used in the April 4 strike in Syria`s Idlib province.

The findings supported earlier testing by Turkish and British laboratories.

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel`s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on April 6 that he was “100 percent certain” that the attack was “directly ordered and planned by Assad”. He did not elaborate on how he reached that conclusion.

Syria has repeatedly denied it was behind the attack in Khan Sheikhoun. Assad was quoted as saying last week that Syria`s military gave up all its chemical weapons in 2013 after the agreement made at the time, and would not have used them anyway.

Israel closely monitors the civil war in Syria, a northern neighbour. During the six-year conflict, Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines, carrying out occasional air strikes against what it says is the movement of weapons to Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militants.

In the meantime, a Qatari plane sent to collect 26 kidnapped members of Doha’s ruling family has remained in Baghdad for a fourth day, as a regional deal that ties their release to the evacuation of four besieged Syrian towns resumed earlier this week.

The jet, which Iraqi officials suspect was carrying millions of dollars, arrived on Saturday ahead of the group’s expected release, which was later stalled by the bombing the same day of a convoy carrying residents of two Shia towns in northern Syria, Fua and Kefraya, whose fate had been central to the plan.

The suicide attack killed 126 people and wounded nearly 300 more in one of the most lethal strikes of the Syrian war, further complicating 16 months of negotiations that were underwritten by Iran and Qatar and involved four of the region’s most powerful militias.

Qatari officials arrived in the Iraqi capital on Saturday with large bags they refused to allow to be searched. Senior Iraqi officials said they believed the bags to be carrying millions of dollars in ransom money, to be paid to the Iraqi militia holding the royals, Keta’eb Hezbollah, and two Syrian groups who had agreed to secure the Shia leg of the swap, the al-Qaida inspired Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham.

Two Sunni towns near Damascus, Madaya and Zabadani , are also being evacuated to rebel-held areas in a choreographed swap that Syrian opposition leaders say has clear implications for the country’s demography. Dozens of residents were bused out of all four towns on Monday as the deal resumed.

As revealed by the Guardian on Saturday, the plan has immersed some of the Middle East’s most prominent players, exposing their support for powerful militias, and the influence that those same proxies wield over weak central governments in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.

The Syrian regime has played no role in the negotiations, and the Baghdad authorities have repeatedly said they did not known who was holding the Qataris. As their release has neared, it has shown no interest in confronting the hostage takers.

Iran had been the main driver of the earliest phase of a plan to evacuate up to 50,000 Shias from Fua and Kefraya, and its officials had negotiated directly with Ahrar al-Sham leaders. Iranian-backed militias have been central to the defence of the two Shia villages, which had been besieged by Islamist groups and jihadis for much of the past four years.

Zee with additional report from Guardian

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