Friday 25 May 2018

Search for chemical weapons of Syria site to start

Russia allows inspection of Syria site amid claims it’s been tampered with

Children wander in the ruins of Douma on the outskirts of Damascus yesterday. Photo: AFP/Getty
Children wander in the ruins of Douma on the outskirts of Damascus yesterday. Photo: AFP/Getty

Jack Maidment

Chemical weapons experts are due to arrive in Douma today to probe the alleged poison gas attack, Russian officials said, as the US voiced fears Moscow may already have "tampered with" evidence at the site.

Following weekend missile strikes on Syria by the US, France and Britain, Russia traded accusations with Western nations, dismissing as "a blatant lie" accusations that Moscow was hindering the investigation.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The four nations confronted each other in tense emergency talks at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague as inspectors prepare for a difficult and dangerous mission.

Syrian state media said air defences had shot down missiles over the central province of Homs, with the strikes reportedly targeting regime air bases.

It was not known who carried out the attack, with Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb saying: "There are no US or coalition operations in that area." Israel's military declined to comment, as is its custom.

Initial reports indicated the incident may have been a false alarm and Syrian forces may have opened fire by mistake.

The weekend missile strikes were in response to an alleged chlorine and sarin gas attack in Douma in which 40 people were said to have been killed.

OPCW director general Ahmet Uzumcu said his nine-strong, all-volunteer team had reached Damascus, but his team had not yet deployed to Douma.

Syrian and Russian officials had warned of "pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place", Mr Uzumcu said.

Igor Kirillov, head of Russia's radiological, biological and chemical protection unit, told reporters the roads still had to be de-mined and cleared and would be tested by UN security services.

"Wednesday is when we plan the arrival of the OPCW experts," he said at the Russian embassy in The Hague.

The US ambassador to the OPCW, Ken Ward, claimed the Russians had already visited the site and "may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission".

The Kremlin dismissed the claims.

"I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the BBC.

The Russian ambassador to the Netherlands, Alexander Shulgin, also said it was a "blatant lie" that Moscow was hampering the investigation.

Yury Filatov claimed children in Syria are being manipulated with make-up to make it look like they have been caught up in gas attacks last week.

He said: "As far as we are concerned there was no attack."

It was the United States, France and Britain who were "standing in the way" of the investigation by ordering air strikes "in the blink of an eye" before the OPCW team had a chance to do its work.

The missiles that US, French and British warships fired on suspected chemical facilities on Saturday constituted the biggest Western attack against the Syrian regime in the seven-year war to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

The targeted sites were largely empty, and they were all said to be facilities either for chemical weapons storage or production.

Despite polls in the UK and France showing scant support for the raids, British Prime Minister Theresa May said it had been her "responsibility as prime minister to make these decisions".

French President Emmanuel Macron also defended his move as part of his constitutional powers.

France urged OPCW nations to boost the organisation's work so it can completely dismantle Syria's "secret" toxic weapons programme.

The US called for a clear condemnation by the OPCW of "the Syrian government for its reign of chemical terror".

The trio of Western powers that carried out the strikes warned they would repeat the operation if Damascus used chemical weapons again.

Irish Independent

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