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Syria government 'producing chemical weapons at research facilities'

Syria's government is continuing to make chemical weapons in violation of a 2013 deal to eliminate them, a Western intelligence agency has told the BBC.

A document says chemical and biological munitions are produced at three main sites near Damascus and Hama.

It alleges that both Iran and Russia, the government's allies, are aware.

Western powers say a Syrian warplane dropped bombs containing the nerve agent Sarin on an opposition-held town a month ago, killing almost 90 people.

The United States launched a missile strike on a Syrian airbase in response to the incident at Khan Sheikhoun, which President Bashar al-Assad says was faked.

The intelligence document obtained by the BBC says Syria's chemical weapons are manufactured at three sites - Masyaf, in Hama province, and at Dummar and Barzeh, both just outside Damascus. All three are branches of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), a government agency, it adds.

Despite monitoring of the sites by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the document alleges that manufacturing and maintenance continues in closed sections.

It says the Masyaf and Barzeh facilities both specialise in installing chemical weapons on long-range missiles and artillery.

The OPCW mentioned Barzeh and Dummar - also known as Jamraya - in its latest official progress update on its work to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons programme.

The watchdog says inspectors visited them between 26 February and 5 March and that it is still awaiting laboratory analysis of the samples that were taken.

The US imposed economic sanctions on 271 SSRC employees three weeks after the Khan Sheikhoun incident, accusing the agency of focusing on the development of non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them.

It is promoted as a civilian research institute by the Assad government.

A source familiar with weapons inspection protocols says it is plausible that a government might only declare certain facilities on any given site to the OPCW and therefore only give inspectors access to those areas.

The intelligence document also accuses Syria of falsely declaring the work of one of its research branches as defensive - when it really continues to develop offensive capabilities.

In addition, it names senior official Basam Hassan as a key figure in authorising the use of chemical weapons.

He was previously described on a 2014 US sanctions list as President Assad's representative to the SSRC, with the rank of brigadier-general.

In a statement emailed to the BBC, the OPCW said it had asked the Syrian authorities to "declare the relevant parts" of the SSRC sites, as per their obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international treaty prohibiting their use.

Although the authorities have declared sections of those sites, the statement said that was "not yet sufficient".

The watchdog said it was "not yet in a position to confirm that the [Syrian] declaration is complete and accurate"

Countries signed up to the CWC would soon get a report on the recent inspections, the statement added.

Syria was obliged to give up its stockpile of chemical weapons following an agreement brokered by the US and Russia in 2013, when Mr Assad signed up to the CWC.

The deal was agreed in the aftermath of a chemical attack that killed hundreds of people in opposition-held areas in the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus.

The United Nations said Sarin had been used in that incident - the same nerve agent the OPCW, the French government and others say was used in Khan Sheikhoun.

At least 87 people were killed in Khan Sheikhoun, according to the UK-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Video posted in the hours following the alleged air strike showed people struggling to breathe and foaming at the mouth - some of the classic symptoms of poisoning by Sarin and other nerve agents.

The pressure group Human Rights Watch released a report on Monday alleging that Khan Sheikhoun was part of a wider pattern of chemical weapon use by Syrian government forces, including three other attacks involving nerve agents since December.

US President Donald Trump cited the pictures of children in distress as one of the reasons he decided to reverse previous policy on Syria and launch a cruise missile strike.

The missiles struck an airbase at Shayrat, which the US says was the place from which the chemical attack was launched.

The intelligence information about the suspected weapons manufacturing sites was shared with the BBC on condition the agency providing it would not be named.

It does not give detail about how the alleged evidence was gathered.

The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons, with President Assad saying the accusations against his forces on 4 April were "100% fabrication".

In an interview last month with AFP news agency, he maintained that the entire arsenal had been dispensed with under the terms of the 2013 deal.

"There was no order to make any attack, we don't have any chemical weapons, we gave up our arsenal a few years ago," he said. "Even if we have them, we wouldn't use them, and we have never used our chemical arsenal in our history."

The Russian defence ministry meanwhile says deadly chemicals were released in Khan Sheikhoun when a militant warehouse containing chemical munitions was hit in a government air strike.

The area is controlled by groups including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which incorporates fighters formerly affiliated to al-Qaeda.

Both Russia and Iran have called for a "thorough and unbiased" investigation into what happened at Khan Sheikhoun, and insisted that only rebel and jihadist groups in Syria have access to chemical weapons.

Mosul offensive: Iraqi army launches 'final push' as army attacks Isil from north-west
by Josie Ensor,

Iraqi forces opened up a new front in the battle to retake the Isil-held city of Mosul on Thursday, with the offensive gaining fresh momentum after a stagnant few weeks.

The army is moving in from the north, trying to meet up with the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) and Federal Police troops who are painstakingly advancing from the south.

Hundreds of thousands of hungry and desperate civilians remain trapped in Mosul’s Old City, where roughly 1,000 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) militants are holding onto a cluster of densely-populated neighborhoods.

The situation is dire for the remaining residents, who have been besieged for months with little access to food or medicine.

The hope is that attacking from the north will force the Jihadist group to split its defensive operations and make it easier for the CTS to make headway from the south.

Announcing the start of the offensive on October 17 last year, prime minister Haider al-Abadi said it would be wrapped up by Christmas.

But Isil’s counter-attack proved much fiercer than expected and troops have faced a gruelling street-to-street battle against snipers, mortar fire and suicide bombs.

While the eastern side of Mosul was liberated within two months, with the help of US-led international coalition air and ground support, the fight for the west has been slow and deadly to both Iraqi forces and civilians caught in the crossfire.

The Iraqi army does not publish its fatality statistics, but it is reported that 774 security forces have been killed and 4,600 wounded.

Meanwhile, more than 8,000 civilians have been been killed or injured and nearly 600,000 displaced. The coalition is responsible for hundreds of the deaths and have come under intense criticism for its sometimes indiscriminate air strikes.

Thursday marked a 1,000 days since the coalition began its aerial campaign against the jihadist group across its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

According to the US department of defence, to March 31, 2017, it has carried out more than 12,500 air strikes in Iraq and 8.500 in Syria, killing some 70,000 militants.

The war against Isil had cost the US $12.5 billion (£9.6bn) since August 8, 2014 – an average daily expenditure of $13 million.

Lt Gen Othman al-Ghanmi, Iraqi Army Chief of Staff, said earlier this week that he expected the battle in the west to be completed "in a maximum of three weeks" despite the fierce resistance his troops had encountered in the Old City.

However, many are pessimistic Isil can be defeated in their largest urban stronghold in that time.

Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the American-led command in Baghdad, said on Wednesday that the Isil was “well short of a thousand fighters” in Mosul but conceded that they were “going to be very difficult to get out.”

“When in that type of dense urban terrain, a small number of fighters can control that territory,” he added.

The battle for Mosul
Why is Mosul such a key city?
As the main industrial city in northern Iraq, Mosul is a key trade hub and is rich with oil fields. Historically, it has had a diverse population and at the start of the 21st century, Arab Sunnis lived alongside Assyrian Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and Turkmen and other minorities.

Why is it important to Isil?
Mosul has been under Isil control since the summer of 2014, and is the terrorist group’s last bastion of power in Iraq. It’s an important stronghold because of its proximity to Isil territory in Syria and to Isil’s supply route through Turkey.

Who is fighting Isil?
A combined 30,000-strong army of troops from the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga and a Shia paramilitary force, which are pushing in on the city from three sides. In the run-up to the battle on October 17, a US-led coalition has been bombing key Isil targets to try to deplete resources

How many Isil fighters are in the city?
An estimated 8,000 jihadists are believed to be in the city.

What will happen to civilians?
Around 1.5million people are believed to be in the city, and have been threatened with execution by Isil if they try to leave. More than 100,000 have already fled to tent cities set up by the UN, which is trying to build more shelters for an anticipated exodus over the coming weeks and months

Iraqi forces open new front in Mosul offensive, gearing up for a final showdown
by Loveday Morris

IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi forces opened a new front Thursday in their offensive to retake Mosul, advancing from the northwest in a bid to add momentum to the grueling seven-month-long battle for the city.

Troops from the army’s 9th Division and elite forces from the Interior Ministry spearheaded the early morning attack, according to the Iraqi military.

Islamic State militants are still holding on in a few neighborhoods of western Mosul, after losing control of the east. But the Iraqi offensive, which is backed by airstrikes and military support from a U.S.-led coalition, had slowed in recent weeks. Interior Ministry forces have ground to a halt on the southern edge of Mosul’s Old City, whose narrow streets and winding alleys are inaccessible to armored vehicles.

[To understand how the U.S. approaches airstrikes in Mosul, look to Russia’s war in Chechnya]

Given that challenging geography, Iraqi commanders have said they now plan to lay siege to the Old City by attacking from the northwest. But the district remains home to hundreds of thousands of civilians, raising concerns about their welfare as the battle closes in, and food and drinking water become increasingly scarce.

“The Old City will be isolated and the last target,” said Lt. Gen. Sami al-Aridhi, a counterterrorism forces commander. He said authorities are considering dropping humanitarian aid to families trapped in areas held by the Islamic State.

Nearly half a million people have been displaced since the battle for Mosul began in October, according to the United Nations. Some have fled to relatives in the city’s east, which is now under the control of Iraqi security forces.

Others have had no choice but to stay in poorly supplied camps south of the city. Aid groups say they expect a new flow of displaced families as Iraqi forces push from the north.

After a grinding fight, during which Iraqi forces have suffered heavy casualties, commanders are eager to wrap up the battle before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which will begin late this month. With many soldiers fasting during the day, the offensive may slow if fighting is still underway when it begins.

[Iraq has never seen this kind of fighting in its battles with ISIS]

Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, a spokesman for the military, told state television that Iraqi forces were making a “steady advance” in the renewed push. They retook part of the Mushairafah neighborhood on the northwestern edge of the city, the military said in a statement.

The Islamic State’s capability “continues to wane,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, commander of ground forces for the U.S.-led coalition, adding that security forces had made “undeniable progress.”

But the presence of civilians makes it harder to push forward at a steady pace. Iraqi officers say that since a strike on a building in Mosul’s al-Jadida neighborhood in March that allegedly killed more than 100 civilians, they have been under orders to request U.S.-led coalition airstrikes only when absolutely necessary. The U.S. military is investigating the incident.

Still, the ground troops rely heavily on support from the air, waiting for hazy weather to clear before they launched their attack Thursday.

Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.
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