UN chemical weapons experts in Syria
UN chemical weapons experts in Syria Reuters

The world's chemical weapons watchdog is investigating recent attacks in the rebel-held Syrian region of Eastern Ghouta to determine whether banned munitions were used, sources told Reuters on Tuesday.

The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) opened an investigation on Sunday into reports of the repeated use of chlorine bombs this month in the district near the Syrian capital, diplomatic sources told the news agency.

Political leaders in France, the United States and United Kingdom said this month they would back targeted military action against Damascus if there were proof of chemical weapons use by forces under President Bashar Al-Assad.

The Syrian regime has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons. The Trump administration recently accused Assad's government of producing and using "new kinds of weapons" to deliver deadly chemicals, despite committing to abolish its chemical weapons program in 2013.

The OPCW investigation comes as Russia ordered the establishment of an evacuation corridor and five-hour daily truce to allow residents to leave eastern Ghouta, where 400,000 people are living under siege and bombardment.

Among the attacks the OPCW's fact-finding team will examine is one on Sunday which local health authorities said killed a child and caused symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine gas, the sources said.

The OPCW did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss the operation in public.

The latest OPCW mission will seek to determine whether chemical weapons were used in violation of the international weapons convention which Syria signed in 2013, but will not assign blame.

The team does not intend to travel to Ghouta because of safety concerns - two previous visits by inspectors in 2013 and 2014 were ambushed - but will gather witness testimony, photographic and video evidence, and interview medical experts.

A UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), established by the United Nations to identify those responsible for chemical weapons attacks, concluded in 2016 that Syrian government forces had used chlorine as a chemical weapon in three cases. Syria and its close ally Russia rejected those conclusions.

The JIM concluded last year that Syrian government forces were also behind the sarin nerve agent attack on Khan Sheikhoun. A renewal of the mission's mandate was vetoed by Moscow at the UN Security Council.

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