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U.N.'s Carla del Ponte says Syrian rebels may have used sarin

BEIRUT — A leading member of a United Nations investigatory commission says there are “strong concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof” that Syrian rebels have used the nerve agent sarin.

Carla del Ponte, a former prosecutor for U.N. tribunals investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, made the comment in an interview Sunday with a Swiss television channel, the BBC reported.

The U.N. panel, known as the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, emphasized in a statement Monday that it had reached no conclusions about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria's civil war. 

“I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got ... about the use of nerve gas by the opposition,” Del Ponte told Swiss Italian broadcaster RSI.

She said the evidence emerged from interviews conducted by investigators with victims, physicians and others in neighboring countries.  

Del Ponte did not rule out the possibility that President Bashar Assad's government may also have used chemical agents on the battlefield.

Nonetheless, the comments were a blow to opposition activists who have alleged that the government has deployed chemical weapons on various occasions against rebel forces in Syria.

The Obama administration has said that U.S. intelligence agencies concluded with varying degrees of certainty that sarin was used in Syria, but investigators have yet to determine whether it was released intentionally and by whom. Britain, France and Israel have made similar accusations in recent weeks.

President Obama has said that the confirmed use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a “red line” that could trigger an unspecified U.S. response.

[Updated at 2:20 p.m., May 6: On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in Washington expressed doubts about reports that the Syrian opposition had used chemical weapons. “We find it highly likely that any chemical weapon use that has taken place in Syria was done by the Assad regime," he said.]

In an apparent reaction to Del Ponte's comments, the U.N. commission said it "has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict.”

The panel, which is investigating allegations of violations of international law in Syria, declined further comment.

The statement, issued in Geneva, suggested that the commission may have been blindsided by Del Ponte’s comments, which were widely reported in the media and online, including on the website of the official Syrian news service, the Syrian Arab News Agency.

The Syrian government has accused the rebels of using poison gas on at least two occasions. Authorities alleged that their opponents wanted to make it appear that the military was deploying chemical weapons to spur an international intervention. The Syrian opposition has denied any use of chemical agents.

The United Nations has vowed an extensive investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria and has assembled an expert team. But that inquiry has been delayed by a dispute with Syrian authorities about access for investigators to sites inside Syria.

The Syrian government does not publicly acknowledge that it possesses chemical weapons, although international experts say it has a large arsenal, including sarin.

Syrian authorities have vowed never to use such weapons against a domestic enemy, even if they were in Syria's possession. At the same time, however, they have consistently depicted the rebellion against Assad as a foreign-based "conspiracy" hatched by Syria's enemies abroad, and not as an internal revolt.

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