Russia hands over evidence of chemical attack by Syrian rebels to UN

NEW YORK CITY (AFP) - Russia on Tuesday handed over evidence to the United Nations indicating Syrian rebels used sarin gas in an attack in March, its UN envoy said.

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Russian experts had been to the scene of the attack at Khan al-Assal near Aleppo and gathered first-hand evidence.

The Russian action risks reigniting an international dispute over the use of chemical weapons in the 26-month-old war, in which the UN says up to 100,000 people have been killed.

The Syrian government has refused to let a UN inspection team into the country, but this week invited UN officials for talks on the investigation.

Mr Churkin told reporters a Russian inquiry had "established" that rebel forces fired a Bashar 3 missile in Khan al-Assal on March 19, killing 26 people, including 16 troops.

"The results of the analysis clearly indicate that the ordinance used in Khan al-Assal was not industrially manufactured and was filled with sarin," added Mr Churkin, who said he had handed over an 80-page report to UN leader Ban Ki Moon.

"There is every reason to believe that it was the armed opposition fighters who used chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal," the Russian ambassador said.

Mr Churkin added that Russia has information that Bashar 3 missiles were produced by a group affiliated to the Syrian Free Army.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said the Russian report is being "studied".

Britain, France and the United States say they have handed over evidence to UN experts that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces have used chemical weapons in the conflict.

Britain and the US have, between them, handed over information on 10 alleged chemical arms attacks by government forces, according to a UN diplomat.

The Western nations say they have no evidence that opposition forces have used chemical arms.

Mr Churkin said the Russian report would be sent to the Western powers. He reaffirmed that Russian experts were "not impressed" by the evidence provided by Britain, France and the United States.

The UN has said the material handed over by the Western countries cannot be considered definitive proof because the origin of the evidence has to be verified by UN experts.

"Unlike other reports provided to the secretary-general, our samples were taken at the projectile impact point by Russian experts in person. They were not transmitted to us through third points," Mr Churkin said.

Syria has said it will let UN experts investigate only the Khan al-Assal attack, but Mr Ban has insisted that there be "unfettered" access to all sites where there have been allegations of chemical attacks.

The government this week invited Mr Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish expert who heads the UN investigation panel, and Ms Angela Kane, the UN High Representative for Disarmament, to Damascus for talks.

Syria's UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari said on Monday the aim was to "discuss further the mechanism and terms of reference" of the UN inquiry set up by Mr Ban in March.