Syria chemical rockets carried large load - experts

2013-09-06 08:03
A member of a UN investigation team takes samples of sands near a part of a missile likely to be one of the chemical rockets. (Picture: AP)

A member of a UN investigation team takes samples of sands near a part of a missile likely to be one of the chemical rockets. (Picture: AP)

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Washington - An analysis by US weapons experts could shed light on a key question about the chemical weapons attack in August in Syria: how the rockets could have delivered enough gas to kill as many as 1 426 people.

The analysis, which was carried out by two independent US weapons experts, could be useful to US and other Western governments who are presenting a case that the Syrian regime was responsible for the attack.

Theodore A Postol, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Richard M Lloyd, an expert in warhead design, carried out their study based on photographs and video of the wreckage in the Damascus suburb where the attack occurred on 21 August.

Postol provided a copy of his analysis on Thursday. He concluded that the rockets in the photographs could have carried up to 50L of deadly sarin. Their study was also reported by The New York Times.

The experts said their analysis refutes earlier assessments that the rockets could not have carried enough sarin to cause mass casualties.

Evidence misinterpreted

On Friday, the US government released a document outlining the findings of a "large body" of independent sources indicating that a chemical weapons attack took place. But it did not reveal details of the evidence.

Postol and Lloyd conducted an extensive analysis of photographs and videos published on the internet of the debris of multiple rockets and concluded that the rockets had been modified using a clever design, and therefore could have carried enough gas to kill not just hundreds of people but the 1 426 figure Obama administration officials have cited.

"I have no information about how many canisters were fired and no information about where they landed," Postol told Deutche Presse-Agentur. "But if you are trying to make a circumstantial argument that more people were killed, this certainly supports that."

While the United States says the attack killed 1 426 people, estimates cited by European governments - Britain in particular - are much lower. While Postol and Lloyd's analysis helps to explain the discrepancy, Postol said he takes no position. He said he and Lloyd were just "trying to figure out what happened on the ground".

He said he believed that government and military intelligence officials had misinterpreted the evidence in the photographs by identifying small tubes seen in the debris as the payload canisters. The small tubes would have only had capacity for 1 or 2 litres of gas.

Postol and Lloyd concluded that these small tubes were part of the detonator device that caused the much larger canister holding the gas to burst open when it hit the ground.

Postol said he sent the analysis to "people in the government," including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the White House.

Just as Postol and Lloyd's assessment came to light, there were indications on Thursday that Britain was reassessing its view of the attack.

Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain had "growing" evidence that the Syrian regime used sarin. The assessments were based on samples taken from Damascus and tested in Britain.

Cameron said the development would be used in a fresh attempt to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to do more to force Syrian President Bashar Assad to the negotiating table.

The results of UN weapons inspectors' onsite tests in Syria have yet to be revealed, but they also could provide more clarity about the attack.

They are likely to be released around the time next week when the US Congress votes on President Barack Obama's request for authorisation for limited military action against Syria.

Read more on:    un  |  bashar assad  |  david cameron  |  barack obama  |  vladimir putin  |  syria  |  syria conflict

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