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Is It Possible To Remove Chemical Weapons In Syria Under Current Conditions?


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Let's talk next with the United Nations official who oversaw the U.N.'s report on the use of poison gas in Syria. This report does not specify who used those chemical weapons, but the United States and others say evidence in that report backs their claim that the Assad regime was behind the attack.

The woman responsible for the report is Angela Kane, the U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs. And in our conversation earlier today, we asked how hard it was to work in Syria.

ANGELA KANE: It was a very difficult mission. The team that is headed by Professor Sulstrom(ph) worked in 40-degree Centigrade temperatures in full gear, under conditions that were not exactly ideal from a security viewpoint. The first day they went in, they actually were fired at by sniper fire. And they still persevered and said no, we've got to do this job. And what you've seen yesterday come out is the report that the team did.

INSKEEP: So that sounds rather difficult. You're talking about 40 degrees Centigrade. For people who measure in Fahrenheit, let's just stipulate that's really hot to be in a moon suit. Do you believe it's going to be possible to find and remove chemical weapons under the conditions you just described?

KANE: I think it is a challenge. I don't think it's ever happened before; that you have to not remove but also destroy chemical weapons and chemical agents in a rebel situation, with fighting going on between the government and the opposition. But I think it can be done.

And what we have seen so far, what I have heard, is that there is great cooperation from the Syrian government. They need to declare their stockpiles, they need to declare what they possess. And then, of course, the need to look at, in terms of how can it be destroyed safely, quickly. And as you know, the Geneva agreement has very, very ambitious timelines as to the location - knowing the location - and then also the destruction of the weapons stockpiles.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, what do you think of analysts who are saying that your evidence points pretty clearly at the government of Syria being responsible for the chemical attack in August?

KANE: I do not think that they have looked at the report. It's about 40 pages. I mean, it's very detailed in terms of what they've found; the symptoms they've found, the munitions they've found; the environmental samples they took including fragments from rockets. And so there's a lot of information in the report from which analysts will draw their own conclusions.

We have always said we will not point fingers at anyone. We will simply present the report as factual evidence, as scientific evidence. And I think that the scientific evidence has been hailed all around as very, very sound. So the analysis that will done will be done by others.

INSKEEP: Help people understand this who may wonder what's the point of doing it if you're not going to say who did it.

KANE: We have never had an investigation of a chemical weapons, allegations of chemical weapons used where a team actually went in within four or five days after the attack happened and had so much first-hand evidence. I think it is absolutely unprecedented and it is really a major achievement that it was possible to be done. And I do think that I would hope that anyone who wishes to think about, or wants to think about using chemical weapons, will not do so because I think in this day and age - an immediate perseverance in trying to get at the truth, and then also, as the secretary-general has repeatedly said, hold those who are responsible to account.

INSKEEP: Well, granting that you didn't see it as part of your mandate to assign blame, is this evidence of a quality that could be used in a criminal prosecution?

KANE: I am not a lawyer, Steve. I can't really tell you that. All I can tell is let the experts have a look at the report and draw their own conclusions. And if they feel that that is backed up by the report, then so be it. We only put the facts out there for the world to see.

INSKEEP: Have you maintained a chain of custody of this evidence that would be sufficient that it could be handed over to prosecutors should that decision be made?

KANE: That chain of custody is absolutely guaranteed. Whatever the team took, and they took about 30 environmental samples; they had a lot of blood, urine and hair samples that they analyzed. That chain of custody means that they took it themselves and they guarantee that never left their sight until it was brought to the laboratories and analyzed. And that is all going to be archived. So that chain of custody remains as it is right now.

INSKEEP: Angela Kane is the U.N. high representative for disarmament. She's in New York. Thanks very much.

KANE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.