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UN split on Syria chemical-weapons-use inquiry

US and Russia at odds over UN Security Council vote on renewing an inquiry into chemical weapons use in Syria.

Security Council resolutions

The future of a UN inquiry into chemical-weapons use in the war in Syria remains uncertain, with opposing Security Council resolutions backed by the US and Russia being proposed.

The mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), an inquiry launched jointly by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2015, was set to expire at midnight New York time on Thursday.

A vote on a US-sponsored Security Council resolution to continue the inquiry's work was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

US President Donald Trump said on Twitter that the Security Council must extend the JIM's mandate to ensure President Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria "does not commit mass murder with chemical weapons ever again".

"There are many more instances of chemical weapons use in Syria that must be investigated," the US mission to the UN said in a statement earlier this week.

The US urged the Security Council to "stand united in the face of chemical weapons use against civilians and extend the work of this critical group".

"Not doing so would only give consent to such atrocities while tragically failing the Syrian people who have suffered from these despicable acts," the statement said.

Security Council divided

But the Security Council has been divided over the JIM's mandate, with the US and its allies on one side and Russia, a staunch ally of the Assad government, on the other.

Earlier this week, Vasily Nebenzya, Russia's ambassador to the UN, said the Russian delegation was in discussions with the US over the inquiry's future.

Russia was also expected to present its own resolution on the work of the JIM, which it said aimed to correct "systemic errors" in the mechanism's current mandate.

That includes ensuring future investigations are conducted on-site and that a chain of custody is preserved, Nebenzya said on November 13.

"It should be guided by the highest standards that the OPCW provides which they did not follow," he said, according to a statement posted on the Russian delegation's website.

Sarin gas attack

In its most recent report, released in late October, the JIM concluded that the Syrian government had released sarin gas in an April 2017 attack in Khan Sheikhoun that killed around 100 people.

READ MORE: Syria forces behind Khan Sheikhoun gas attack: UN probe

It also said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group was responsible for releasing sulpur mustard gas in an attack in Umm Hawsh in September last year.

Two women were exposed to mustard gas in that incident, after a mortar shell containing the substance hit a house and another shell was found lodged in the pavement, the UN said.

"There has been sufficient evidence of a credible and reliable nature to make its findings," said Edmond Mulet, who heads the JIM, during a briefing on the report's findings.

Though the UN said it was "too dangerous" to visit Umm Hawsh and Khan Sheikhoun, the committee said it had gathered enough information to make a solid conclusion, according to a UN statement.

Mulet said the JIM conducted its work "in an independent, impartial and professional manner".

Russian veto

Russia vetoed an earlier resolution sponsored by the US to extend the JIM's work for an additional year, saying at the time that it wanted to wait for the release of the JIM's report on chemical weapons use by the Syrian government.

Eleven Security Council member states voted in favour of that resolution in late October, while Russia and Bolivia voted against it and China and Kazakhstan abstained.

Russia has vetoed nine resolutions on Syria since the conflict started in 2011, according to Reuters.

In a joint statement released earlier this month, Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state; Jean-Yves Le Drian, French foreign minister; Boris Johnson, UK foreign secretary; and Sigmar Gabriel, German foreign minister, condemned the use of chemical weapons by both the Syrian government and ISIL, also known as ISIS.

"We agree that it is vital for the international community to continue to investigate cases where chemical weapons have been used in Syria," they said.

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