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France is 'certain' sarin gas was used in Syria; UN condemns 'brutality' of conflict

Reuters

People flee fighting on a Syrian street on May 18. A new UN report cites systematic war crimes.

France said on Tuesday it was "certain" that the nerve agent sarin had been used in Syria, underlining a United Nations report that said the civil war had reached  “new levels of cruelty and brutality.”

Tests carried out on samples showed the gas had been used "several times in Syria in limited areas," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement, according to Reuters.

The results of the tests have been handed to the UN, Fabius added - although details of the French claims were not immediately available. It was not clear which side had supposedly used the chemical weapon.

It came hours after a UN report said investigators had "reasonable grounds" to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons had been used in Syria in a conflict where brutality was now a tactic of war. 

The report asked nations to “counter the escalation of the conflict” by not providing weaponry “given the clear risk that the arms will be used to commit serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.”


It said the supply of more arms to either side would only worsen a conflict that has hit “new levels of cruelty and brutality.”

When asked about France's announcement, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she had seen the reports and added that the U.S. is "seeking more information."

"So, for the time being, I would refer you all to the French government," Psaki said.

She also said there were no final conclusions to report regarding the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, but she added that the U.S. still believes that the opposition doesn't have the "ability to use chemical weapons."

"We remain firm in our belief that if there were use, that the use would be coming from the regime," Psaki said. "We don't have any reason to believe -- there's no new information on that [it] is coming from the opposition. But again, we're still focused on seeing this process through, gathering facts, working with our allies. And I don't have any new updates for you on that."

Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his plan to supply missiles to Syria’s government, saying the scheduled sale of highly advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad regime would fall under “transparent and internationally recognized contracts.”

Sergei Ilnitsky / EPA

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday spoke against supplying Syrian rebels with weapons.

Despite the deal, Putin said any attempt to intervene militarily in Syria would be “doomed to fail” and echoed the UN call for restricting arms sales – but only to rebel forces trying to overthrow Assad.

"Any attempts to influence the situation by force through direct military action is doomed to fail and would unavoidably bring about large humanitarian casualties," he said.

The UN commission report said “war crimes and crimes against humanity have become a daily reality in Syria," citing the suspected use of chemical weapons, thermobaric bombs, sieges and massacres.

"The desperation of the parties to the conflict has resulted in new levels of cruelty and brutality, bolstered by an increase in the availability of weapons. Increased arm transfers hurt the prospect of a political settlement to the conflict, fuel the multiplication of armed actors at the national and regional levels and have devastating consequences for civilians," it added.

The report called for peace talks and war crimes tribunals, saying that the global community had been “silent on the issue of accountability.” 

“The documented violations are consistent and widespread, evidence of a concerted policy implemented by the leaders of Syria’s military and government,” it said.

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A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.

Giving the most detailed accounts to date from an official international body, the report documents four suspected chemical weapons attacks in March and April, as well as 17 possible massacres between Jan. 15 and May 15.

It came down more harshly on Assad’s troops than on the rebel factions, though it said both sides had committed war crimes, a judgment it also made in February.

“Government forces and affiliated militia have committed murder, torture, rape, forcible displacement, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts,” the report said.

It reported the “systematic” use of “summary execution.”

Rebel forces, the report added, have been guilty of execution, torture, hostage-taking and pillaging, though it concluded that war crimes committed by the opposition had not reached the “intensity and scale of those committed by government forces” and their allies, which include Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, which leads the increasingly varied groups of rebel forces, reacted angrily to the report, citing what he perceived as an emphasis on words over actions.

"The last two years we saw nothing from the UN or human rights groups, with all the crimes committed by the regime against civilians," the FSA's Abu Muhanad said, adding: "We are frustrated. ... How long will we keep demanding help and no one is doing anything?"

The Syrian National Coalition, an international group supporting the rebel fighters, said it had looked at the report "with interest."

"The coalition would like to express its condemnation of all types of ... breaches of laws and international conventions, no matter the side that commits it," a spokesman for the group said. "On the other hand, there is no way to compare between people who throw tons of bombs on an unarmed population, killing children and women in order to eliminate the people's revolution, and those who use light or medium weapons to protect the people." 

An estimated 4.3 million Syrians have been displaced by the war, and 1.6 million have fled the country, the UN report said, adding that another 6.8 million have been trapped by fighting.

Vuk Jeremić, the Serbian president of the UN General Assembly, told the group last month that at least 80,000 people had died during the two-year war, most of them civilians.

NBC News' Albina Kovalyova and Catherine Chomiak, and Reuters,  contributed to this report.

Zaatari, one of the largest refugee camps, is five miles from the Syrian border in neighboring Jordan. Of the estimated 120,000 displaced Syrians living there, half are children. In this first of a special series, ITV's John Ray reports from a makeshift children's clinic inside the camp.

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