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Sarin gas probe in Syria comes under growing pressure

UN investigators are trying to determine who is responsible for a sarin gas attack in Syria that left 87 people dead. Western powers say Syria is responsible for the attack while Russia has questioned the investigation.

An international investigation into a pair of chemical weapons attacks in Syria is coming under heavy political pressure, according to the lead investigator.

The atmosphere surrounding the joint probe being conducted by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has become a "highly-politicized environment," lamented the head of the three-member panel Edmond Mulet.

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Dozens killed in nerve gas attack in Syria

Mulet's panel is investigating who carried out a sarin gas attack that left 87 dead in the town of Khan Sheikhun in April, as well as a mustard gas attack in Um Hosh last September. Two Syrian women suffered from exposure to the potentially lethal gas in that attack.

Mulet said "interested parties," which he did not name, were attempting to influence the panel. His comments came Thursday after a closed-door meeting with the UN Security Council.

"We do receive, unfortunately, direct and indirect messages all the time from many sides telling us how to do our work," Mulet told reporters.  "Some of these messages are very clear in saying that if we don't do our work according to them ... then they will not accept the conclusions of our work," he added.

Russia openly questions probe

Mulet did not name the countries applying pressure but Russia has openly questioned the work of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM).

"The messages are coming from everywhere," Mulet added, suggesting that Western powers were also in frequent contact with the panel.

Syrien Giftgasangriff in Khan Sheikhun Bodenproben (Getty Images/AFP/O. Haj Kadour)

A Syrian man collects samples from the site of the sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhum in April

During his meeting with UN members, Mulet said he called on them to "please let us do our work" and pledged that the investigators would be impartial, objective and independent.

The Security Council established the JIM in 2015 to investigate cases of suspected chemical weapons use in Syria and apportion blame for the attacks.

The United States, France and Britain have said the strike was carried out by President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Washington launched a retaliatory cruise missile strike days later against a Syrian airbase from where it said the chemical weapons attack was launched.

In earlier reports, the JIM has already determined that Syrian government forces were responsible for chlorine attacks on three villages in 2014 and 2015, and that "Islamic State" (IS) militants used mustard gas in 2015.

Efforts by Western powers to impose UN sanctions on Syria in February were blocked by Russia and China.

Under the terms of an agreement reached with the US and Russia in 2013 Assad was supposed to dismantle his chemical weapons stockpile.

The reports findings are due in October.

bik/es (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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