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Syrian Militants Have Access to Chlorine Gas: Plant Owner

Radical Islamist militants have access to large quantities of chlorine gas that might have been used last month in a lethal strike near the Syrian city of Aleppo, Time magazine reported on Monday.

Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. government classifies as a terrorist organization, seized control of Syria's only chlorine gas production facility last August, according to factory owner Mohammad Sabbagh. While the facility is no longer in working order, there are approximately 400 containers on site, each containing 1 ton of chlorine gas.

Damascus and the Syrian rebels accuse each other of being behind the March 19 rocket assault that resulted in 31 fatalities and injuries to dozens more in the village of Khan al-Assal, Time reported. The United Nations is preparing to dispatch an expert team to investigate whether a chemical weapons attack took place but not to determine blame. 

"No one can know for certain, but if it turns out chlorine gas was used in the attack, then the first possibility is that it was mine," Sabbagh said. "There is no other factory in Syria that can make this gas, and now it is under opposition control."

Syrian businessman Faris al-Shehabi, who supports dictator Bashar Assad, said it was clear to him the rebels' reason for capturing the chlorine factory last summer was to gain access to the chemicals inside. "We warned back then that chemical components were in the hands of terrorists, but no one listened," he said in an interview.

While issue specialists question whether a recognized chemical warfare material such as sarin nerve agent or mustard gas was fired in the March incident, they acknowledge the possibility that a lower-level but still dangerous substance was used.

Some analysts are skeptical Syrian rebels have the technical capabilities to build even simple chemical arms. "Even if they had chemicals, where would they get access to a delivery system?" said Arms Control Association analyst Greg Thielmann. The more probable explanation is that the chemical casualties were a "side effect of a high explosive device that released a chemical in the vicinity."

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