Syrian air defences activated after 'false alarm', state TV says
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Syrian state-run media on Tuesday retracted a report that the country's air defences shot down missiles over the central region of Homs, as chemical weapons experts still waited to visit the site of a suspected chemical attack near Damascus.
The retraction came hours after the Syrian government-run Syrian Central Media said the missiles targeted the Shayrat air base in Homs. The report did not say who carried out the pre-dawn strikes.
Hours later however, the official SANA news agency said the air defence system over the Shayrat base was activated after a “false alarm”.
"Last night, a false alarm that Syrian air space had been penetrated triggered the blowing of air defence sirens and the firing of several missiles," a military source told SANA. "There was no external attack on Syria," the source added.
The issue had been dealt with by Russian experts, the commander said.
There were no details available on another report, by the pro-Iranian Hezbollah's media service, of three missiles that were allegedly fired on the Dumair military airport northeast of Damascus early Tuesday.
Earlier this month, four Iranian military personnel were killed in an air strike on Syria's T4 air base, also in Homs province. Syria and its main allies Iran and Russia blamed Israel for that attack. Israel did not confirm or deny mounting the raid.
Shayrat air base was targeted last year in a US cruise missile attack in response to a chemical attack that killed at least 70 people, including children, on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.
The reports of new air strikes came just a few days after the United States, Britain and France conducted air strikes targeting alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria, in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack that they blamed on the Syrian government.
Chemical weapons investigators still waiting to visit attack site
Three days after arriving in Damascus, experts from the international chemical weapons were still waiting Tuesday for Syrian and Russian authorities to allow them to visit the site of the suspected chemical attack in the town of Douma, just east of Damascus.
On Monday, Syrian and Russian authorities prevented investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) from going to the scene, the head of the OPCW said, 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 April 7 attack in Douma, killing at least 40 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, carried out air strikes on Saturday, bombing sites they said were linked to Syria's chemical weapons program.
Syria and its ally Russia deny any chemical attack took place. 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 Douma - of trying to cover up evidence.
Conflicting accounts of Douma attack
The lack of access to Douma 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, adding that he hoped "all necessary arrangements will be made ... to allow the team to deploy to Douma as soon as possible".
During a government-organised visit to Douma Monday, the Associated Press spoke to survivors and witnesses who described being hit by gas. Several said a strange smell started spreading and people screamed, "It's chlorine! It's chlorine!"
The AP visited a two-room underground shelter where Khaled Mahmoud Nuseir said 47 people were killed, including his pregnant wife and two daughters. A strange smell lingered, nine days after the attack.
Nuseir, 25, said he ran from the shelter to a nearby clinic and fainted. After he was revived, he returned to the shelter and found his wife and daughters dead, with foam coming from their mouths.
He and two other residents accused the rebel Army of Islam rebel group of carrying out the attack. Nuseir said a gas cylinder was found leaking the poison gas, adding that he didn't think it was dropped from the air because it still looked intact.
However, in a separate interview the AP spoke to a medic who was among those who later were evacuated to northern Syria. Ahmed Abed al-Nafaa said helicopters were flying before the attack and when he reached the site, people were screaming "chlorine". He said he tried to enter the shelter but was overcome by a strong smell of chlorine and his comrades pulled him out.
The accounts contradict what the Syrian government and Russia have reported: that there was no gas attack in Douma.
Until Saturday, Douma was the last rebel-held town near Damascus, 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.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)