Will the UK disclose evidence that shows whether chemical weapons were used in Syria? That may depend on the consequences.
With David Cameron declaring a ‘war crime’ in Syria some are asking crucial questions. Channel 4 News’ Alex Thomson has listed several and Peter Beaumont also raised concerns.
Of Alex’s questions the first three were similarly relevant to my quest to find answers about the use of chemical weapons by the Egyptians in North Yemen almost 50 years ago. In the 1962-1970 civil war here Britain had collected samples and withheld test results.
During my hunt a combination of what Alex is asking about Syria this week:
3. Why has nobody from Porton Down – where samples have reportedly been tested – been put up for interview by UK government..?
and an issue Peter Beaumont raised yesterday:
In this case, if it is true that the UK and French governments have soil samples that show sarin has been used, they should not only be shared with UN investigators but the chain of evidence showing how they came to have the samples must made public… they should either do the right thing – disclose what evidence they have – or let the UN investigating team reach its own conclusion.
were both central to my understanding of why test results had not been shared by the UK government almost half a century ago.
British and French special forces and/or mercenaries (it was something of a grey area best explained in Duff Hart-Davis’ great book - ’The War That Never Was’) were supporting and training the deposed Imam al-Badr’s royalist forces - hiding out in the northern mountains – against republicans supported by some 70,000 Egyptian troops.
There’s no dispute that the Egyptians did use chemical weapons. Thousands were killed, animals died and vegetation wiped out in multiple bombing raids using what was presumed to be either phosgene or mustard gas. But the international community, including the United Nations, chose to turn a blind eye. The British held the key to the evidence which could have either confirmed, or rebuffed, the widely reported claims. But they chose to keep their findings secret.
The small team of British fighters took soil samples, body parts and bomb remnants from North Yemen; sent them over the Saudi border and back to England for testing by the UK’s Ministry of Defence.
Last year I put in a Freedom of Information request for the results and all correspondence relating to their findings. In the hope of once and for all finding out what chemicals were used and the truth behind why the British Government decided not to share the test results with the rest of the world. Suggestions were at the time that the British didn’t want to upset the Egyptians.
‘Recently 200 British Parliament members asked their government to take the poison gas question to the United Nations. Foreign Secretary George Brown indicated disinterest. Britain, too, is apparently fearful of further antagonizing the Egyptian dictator.
U Thant, secretary general of the United Nations, has treated the poison gas matter with similar prudence. Just why isn’t clear, unless it is simply an unwillingness to rock the Afro-Asian bloc, where Egypt’s voice is loud.’ - Los Angeles Times, August 7,1967.
The British were also in the process of ceding control of the southern port of Aden after more than 125 years. The issue of chemical weapons in the north could have had a knock on effect of delaying their withdrawal, which Whitehall was then trying to expedite.
Documents released by the UK’s MOD via a Freedom of Information Request last year detail results of some of the samples taken from Yemen during the 1960s civil war. Not all documents requested relating to the samples and correspondence could be found, according to the MOD.
The documents released under the FOI request were inconclusive. The samples had been contaminated or were insufficiently preserved. Crucially the MOD said they couldn’t find all the files I requested.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) did carry out field research at the time but their records post-1965 remain classified. The most significant attacks ICRC looked into took place in 1967.
So now, almost 50 years down the line, despite my wild goose chase that took not an inconsiderable amount of time and effort, we’re still no wiser.
Although the was one insight that surfaced: The eating habits of the British mercenaries. The condiment of choice (that doubled as a sample pot) in the caves of North Yemen in the late 1960s? Crosse and Blackwell Piccalilli.
SECRET - U.K. EYES ONLY
EXAMINATION OF SAND SAMPLE RECEIVED 1.2.67
The sample was a “dry” free flowing powder…and had a distinct spicy smell. (This was not surprising since the bottle although cleaned had once contained Crosse and Blackwell’s Piccalilli)
If the UK’s behaviour over chemical weapons evidence in Yemen is anything to go by the decision over whether or not to share current samples and test results from Syria with the rest of the world will be a political one.
The big difference in Syria today is there are many more actors willing and able to take samples, but who also hold a vested interest in manipulating or covering up results.
However, I seriously doubt any sample results from Syria, even from those who may want to falsify evidence, will be telling us they’ve discovered piccalilli.
A storm filled dusk in Sana’a this evening.
Nearly every day Yemen tests my patience. But then every day I get to watch this from my roof. Suddenly, it all seems worth while.
The neighbour’s donkey having a morning roll on the ‘football pitch’ that was once a garden when there was water in Old Sana’a.
Football. It’s a dirty game. Especially when it creates a dust storm in Old Sana’a
Following the first of three trips to Abyan earlier this year I raised concerns over the issue of arming militia groups - Popular or Peoples Committees as they are known - in the south. This week is a prime example of how giving arms and power to the PCs can and will go wrong.
When Tareq al-Fadhli, the notorious former jihadist, returned to Zinjibar the PCs didn’t like it. Amid rising tension the pro-government gunmen surrounded his house and clashes broke out between al-Fadhli’s guards and the state supported militiamen, which continued today.
Whatever your opinion of Tareq al-Fadhli, the action of the PCs highlights the problem of relying on and using an unaccountable force, who are able to chose who they fight and who they answer to.
As mentioned in May - with regard to the secessionist resistance force in northern Abyan - the long-term consequences of using militia groups to secure towns, access routes and large areas of territory appeared, in the long-term at least, deeply flawed.
When I visited southern Abyan: Ja’ar, Zinjibar and the edge of Shuqra, independently, without the military peering over my shoulder, the problem seemed even worse. For a start calling these militia groups ‘Popular’ Committees appeared to be a contradiction in terms. Unlike in Lawder, I failed to find a single person, out of dozens of local residents I spoke to, who had a positive word to say about them:
“I know members of the Popular Committees who were with Ansar al-Sharia. But they are for sale. They go where there is money… I would not trust the Popular Committees to watch over my goats.”
Zinjibar resident and farmer
“I would rather Ansar al-Sharia than the Popular Committees…armed thugs ruled the town before Ansar al-Sharia. That is why we welcomed the security Ansar al-Sharia brought. Now they [the thugs] have come back as the Popular Committees. Just renamed, with their own agenda.”
Ja’ar lawyer, Fouad Zaid al-Qasem
The PC’s in northern Abyan were made up of local men, secessionists and were widely popular. In southern Abyan their loyalties and motives were being questioned and, by all accounts, they were deeply unpopular.
I wrote about this at length at the time…
The current stand-off and clashes resulting from Tareq al-Fadhli’s return to Zinjibar are a small indication, and just one of the inevitable results, of leaving militiamen rather than the Yemeni military in charge of security in Abyan.
Last Saturday Glenn Grandy from Melbourne, Australia emailed me. His son, Jylon, had read about Saleem al-Harazi, the young Yemeni boy blinded by a bullet on March 18, 2011 in Sana’a.
Jylon was so upset by Saleem’s story he wanted to try and do something for him. On Sunday October 28 a 10 year-old boy in Australia, along with his 8 year-old brother Ashton (pictured above), will be walking six kilometres to Doncaster Primary School in Melbourne to raise money for a 12 year-old boy in Yemen.
A child in Australia, inspired by a young boy in Yemen. The two have never met and live thousand of miles apart. As children they and their respective siblings have shown a heart-warming example of humanity.
To support Jylon and Saleem you can donate here.