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Chemical weapons team kept from reaching alleged Syria attack site

Hasan Mohamed, AFP | A child runs along a street in front of clouds of smoke billowing following a reported air strike on Douma, the main town of Syria's rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on March 20, 2018.

Independent investigators were prevented by Syrian and Russian authorities Monday from reaching the scene of an alleged chemical attack near the Syrian capital, an official said.

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The episode comes days after the US, France and Britain bombarded sites they said were linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program.

The lack of access to the town of Douma by inspectors from the watchdog group, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has left questions about the April 7 attack unanswered.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said Syrian and Russian officials cited “pending security issues” in keeping its inspectors from reaching Douma.

“The team has not yet deployed to Douma,” two days after arriving in Syria, Uzumcu told an executive council of the OPCW in The Hague.

Syrian authorities were offering 22 people to interview as witnesses instead, he said, adding that he hoped “all necessary arrangements will be made ... to allow the team to deploy to Douma as soon as possible".

The US and France say they have evidence that poison gas was used in Douma, east of Damascus, killing dozens of people, and that President Bashar al-Assad’s military was behind it, but they have made none of that evidence public. Syria and its ally Russia deny any such attack took place.

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov blamed the Western air strikes carried out early Saturday for holding up a mission by the OPCW team to Douma. He told reporters in Moscow that the inspectors could not go to the site because they need permission from the UN Department for Safety and Security.

But a UN spokesman said the clearances have been given to the OPCW team.

“The United Nations has provided the necessary clearances for the OPCW team to go about its work in Douma. We have not denied the team any request for it to go to Douma,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

On Monday evening, Russian officials told reporters that they expect a team of chemical weapons experts to arrive in Douma on Wednesday to probe the alleged attack.

"Tomorrow (Tuesday) the security services of the United Nations ... will test the routes. And on Wednesday is when we plan the arrival of the OPCW experts," a senior Russian official said at a press conference in the Russian embassy in The Hague, explaining the roads were still being cleared of mines.

>> Read more: The difficulties of probing chemical weapons attacks in Syria

Both Russia and the Syrian government have welcomed the OPCW visit. The team arrived in Syria shortly before the air strikes and met with Syrian officials. Government forces and Russian troops have been deployed in Douma, which is now controlled by the Syrian government.

Syrian opposition and activists have criticised the Russia deployment in the town, saying that evidence of chemical weapons’ use might no longer be found.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Russia interfered with any evidence.

“I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site,” Lavrov told the BBC in an interview Monday.

Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has said his country is “fully ready” to cooperate with the OPCW mission. He said government officials met with the delegation, which has been in Damascus for three days, a number of times to discuss cooperation.

Syria has in the past accused the West of politically manipulating the OPCW mission.

At least 40 people are believed to have died in the attack on Douma, which until Saturday was the last rebel-held town near Damascus.

The OPCW team dispatched to Syria to investigate does not have a mandate to assign blame.

Russia vetoed last year the extension of the mandate of another joint UN-OPCW joint body in charge of determining who was behind other chemical attacks in Syria. The joint body was created in 2015 and found the Syrian government responsible for using sarin gas last year in Khan Shaykhoun, a rebel-held area in northern Syria.

>> Read more: A history of the Syria chemical weapons 'red line'

Meanwhile, NATO’s secretary general said the US-led air strikes will reduce the Syrian government’s capabilities of carrying out new chemical attacks.

Jens Stoltenberg said the strikes were a “clear message” to Assad, Russia and Iran that the use of chemical weapons is not acceptable and that the allies would not stand idle. He spoke in an interview with Turkey’s NTV television on Monday.

In Damascus, hundreds of Syrians gathered Monday in Omayyad Square in Damascus, rallying in support of their armed forces, which they said had succeeded in confronting the air strikes by the West.

State TV broadcast the rally live from the central square, where protesters waved Syrian flags in a demonstration that was dubbed a “salute to the achievements of the Arab Syrian Army". They also set off fireworks and unleashed celebratory gunfire.

Shouts of “Allah, Syria, and only Bashar,” a reference to Assad, rang out.

The strikes have ratcheted up international tension, as the US and Russia exchanged threats of retaliation.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said a decision on new economic sanctions against Russia will be made “in the near future". UN Ambassador Nikki Haley had said a decision was coming Monday for sanctions against Russia for enabling the Assad government to continue using chemical weapons, but the White House did not commit to that timetable.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the military strikes violated the UN Charter and that if they continue, “it will inevitably entail chaos in international relations", according to a Kremlin statement on Sunday.

Douma was the last rebel holdout in the eastern Ghouta enclave, which was the target of a government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands of people.

Syrian media, Russian and Syrian officials have sought to play down the impact of the airstrikes, saying the Syrian air defences intercepted most of the missiles. The Pentagon says no missiles were engaged.

Also Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May was to face angry lawmakers for authorising the strikes without a vote in Parliament. Her office said she planned to tell them the strikes were “in Britain’s national interest” and were carried out to stop further suffering from chemical weapons attacks.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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