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UN 2d Syria Chem Weapons Report Says Never Got to Khan al Asal, Mentions Video

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, December 12 -- When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accepted Ake Sellstrom's second report on Syria chemical weapons on December 12, unlike the first he did not call it overwhelming.

  When asked, he declined to answer any question about it (and declined a separate question about the reported execution in North Korea). Inner City Press video here.

  It was Syria which first invited the UN to investigate chemical weapons there, the Khan al Asal incident. Later a Russian television reporter Ms. Popova said she had video, and Inner City Press asked about it. It was provided, and is mentioned in Sellstrom's second report, but no more than that.

  Sellstrom's report says they never got to Khan al Asal. The report is online here; after it was up, the filler text on UN Disarmament's web site was still a Latin quote about pleasure and pain.

  Ban will brief the General Assembly about it on December 13, and the Security Council on December 16, when he says he'll take press (or Press?) questions. His spokesperson took only one Inner City Press question on Thursday, and Friday's by no means certain.

  After reporting the delay on November 28, US Thanksgiving, Inner City Press waited until November 29, a UN work-day (albeit with no noon briefing), to ask Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokespeople in writing:

"Please confirm that Ake Sellstrom's second report on chemical weapons in Syria, including in Khan al Asal, will be finished on December 13, as reported on Swedish government website: From the UN's perspective, is the 13th still "early December"? Relatedly, please explain in detail the reason for delay from the initial projection of "late October." Also, why was it the Swedish government and not the UN that announced this new completion date?"

Here was the UN's response to Inner City Press:

Subject: Your questions for Friday
From: UN Spokesperson - Do Not Reply [at]
Date: Fri, Nov 29, 2013 at 12:42 PM
To: Matthew.Lee [at]

Regarding the questions you asked by email, the Spokesperson has the following to say:

On the report by Ake Sellstrom's team, the date for the issuance of the final report of the investigation into allegations of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic has been delayed as additional analytical work has been required. The results of this analysis are expected in the next few days and the report finalised thereafter. The issuance of the final report is expected to be in the middle of December.

  When Inner City Press last asked, the UN said without explanation it had been delayed into "early December"? Video here and embedded (second) below.

  As to the 13th, the question was why didn't the UN announce it? The UN canceled its noon briefing on November 27 for a "stakeout" at which Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took only two insider questions, none on Syria (or the increasing corporate domination of by the UN, most recently by Bank of America and even Shell.)

  On December 11 Ban's spokesperson Martin Nesirky was asked (by Inner City Press) about the December 13 date, and replied that it would be the UN's decision. Then on December 12 he said it would be in the afternoon -- then would not accept even a second question, instead taking four from the same journalist.  For the photo op, one must arrive a full 55 minutes early.

   The UN's chemical weapon team under Ake Sellstrom first went to Syria to look into Khan al Asal, where Syria said rebels used sarin gas. But once in Damascus, the team shifted its focus to a later, August 31 incident in Al Ghouta.

It reported quickly on that, then returned to Syria -- ostensibly, to look into Khan al Asal and other locations. On September 30, UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky announced that 

"the team of chemical weapons investigators led by Professor Ake Sellström, which was in Syria to investigate allegations of the use of chemical weapons there, has just left the country after completing its six-day mission. The team will now move to the phase of finalizing its report, which the team hopes will be ready by late October."

Even then, on October 4, Inner City Press asked about limitations on that visit, including not visiting Khan al Asal: (Video here)

Inner City Press: Khan al-Asal, without any disrespect, I just wanted a simple answer why the UN never went to Khan al-Asal. I read it a number of times; maybe I am being dense, but was it that it they couldn’t get there? Was it was too deteriorated? I am not suggesting those are the reasons, I just wanna know what the reason is.

Spokesperson Nesirky: Well, it does say, not in that particular part that you have in front of you; it does say on 30 September, that transcript from Monday, or let’s be clear about it: I said there are a number of reasons, potential reasons. And one of those includes that with the passage of time, it becomes… I don’t think you expect me, I know you are reading what I said, you don’t think you’d expect me to say exactly what I said on Monday?

Inner City Press: I am asking you a substantive question; what would you say to those who say it’s a shame if the request, the initial request to go to Syria was to visit this one place... it seems to cry, to call out for an answer of why what was initially requested was not done.

Spokesperson: Right, right, so, listen: As I have said, as I have said here a number of times, there are a number of factors why it was not possible or feasible to go. And one of those is that with the passage of time, there is a deterioration of the material that could be used for sampling, and, therefore, to help decide whether chemical weapons were used or not. But as I also said, there is a portfolio of different ways that the team, the investigation team, can gather evidence and try to determine at a distance whether chemical weapons were used. That’s one of the possible constraints. Another is obviously security. And with regard to the broader question about the passage of time, everybody knows that it was not for want of trying that the team did not get there until August. As you well know from March, there was extremely hard work done on both sides — meaning the Syrian authorities and the United Nations in the form of the Office for Disarmament Affairs — to make this work. It was not easy. And that’s been plainly said by any number of people, including the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. But the fact of the matter is that everyone persevered because there was an interest to get in. And eventually, they were able to get in and they were able then to determine that chemical weapons had indeed been used in that incident on 21 August; and they furthermore have continued both outside and then, on a subsequent visit to Syria that ended on Monday, to gather material so that they can present a final report at the end of this month.

When October 31 arrived without any report, Inner City Press went to the UN's noon briefing and asked about the status of Sellstrom's report (video here)

Inner City Press: on Syria and chemical weapons, since it is now the end of October, I wanted to ask for a status update of the second Sellström report on Khan al-Asal, on the other sites, where does this stand?

Spokesperson Nesirky: Well, you’re right it’s 31 October, trick or treat. So Professor Sellström is working on the final report in coordination with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and World Health Organization experts who were part of the UN mission. A number of samples are still being analysed by the designated laboratories and the results are expected to be provided to the UN Mission early next week. The final report is expected to be finalized in early December, after all information gathered by the UN mission has been evaluated. Other questions, please.

So why, after the speed up of Sellstrom's report into al Ghouta, which Ban Ki-moon declared to be "overwhelming" before he even saw it, has his reporting including Khan al Asal been delayed for more than a month -- and then to December 12? That has still not been answered. Watch this site.


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