Monday 23 April, 2018

Syria: Inspectors blocked from suspected gas attack site

(Image: AP: A man rides past destruction in Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, in Syria on 16 April 2018)

(Image: AP: A man rides past destruction in Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, in Syria on 16 April 2018)

Syrian and Russian authorities prevented independent investigators from going to the scene of a suspected chemical attack, the head of the chemical watchdog group said on Monday, blocking international efforts to establish what happened and who was to blame.

The US and France say they have evidence that poison gas was used in the 7 April attack in the opposition-held town of Douma, killing dozens of people, and that Syrian President Bashar Assad's military was behind it.

But they have made none of that evidence public even after they, along with Britain, bombarded sites they said were linked to Syria's chemical weapons program.

Syria and its ally Russia deny any chemical attack took place and Russian officials went even further, accusing Britain of staging a "fake" chemical attack. British Prime Minister Theresa May accused the two countries - whose forces now control the town east of Damascus - of trying to cover up evidence.

The lack of access to Douma by inspectors from the watchdog group, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has left unanswered questions about the attack.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said Syrian and Russian officials cited "pending security issues" in keeping its inspectors from reaching Douma. Instead, Syrian authorities offered them 22 people to interview as witnesses, he said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the inspectors could not go to the site because they needed approval from the UN. But UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the United Nations had "provided the necessary clearances for the OPCW team to go about its work in Douma”.

At least 40 people are believed to have died on 7 April in Douma, which until Saturday was the last rebel-held town near the capital and the target of a government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands.

Hours after the alleged chemical attack, the rebel faction that controlled the town, the Army of Islam, relented and was evacuated along with thousands of residents.

The weekend's airstrikes by the US, France and UK have increased international tension, as the US and Russia exchanged threats of retaliation. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday warned that if the strikes continue "it will inevitably entail chaos in international relations".

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