BEIRUT — A leading member of a
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
"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
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.
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,
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.